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 San Diego SOAR Academy Staff Return to School

Justin Littrell and students at the San Diego SOAR Academy Urban Camp campus

Wonderful. Emotional. Like a family reunion.

These were some of the words that came up when staff members were asked to describe what it was like when SDCOE's Kearny Mesa, East Mesa, and Urban Camp court schools reopened for in-person instruction last month. 

"Everyone had a big smile on their faces even under the masks on my first day back," said Urban Camp teacher Samantha Bielman. "The joy couldn't be disrupted by the masks or social distancing." 

Kara Madrid, an education specialist and ASSETs coordinator at Urban Camp, said she was eager to return to face-to-face instruction. 

Alex Long at the San Diego SOAR Academy East Mesa site

"So much of our work at the court schools relies on the relationship and rapport we build with our incredible students," she explained. "Virtually, we were able to deliver instruction and curriculum; however, we did not have the opportunity to establish trust. I was ready to establish rapport with our students and to remind them of their resiliency, potential, and strength." 

Education Specialist Greta Hulley, who teaches at San Diego SOAR Academy at Kearny Mesa, concurred. "There is nothing like the actual face-to-face, in-person contact with your students," she said. "They were so excited to have their teachers back in person, you could feel the energy in the room. There was also a difference in their behavior and participation level. Seeing my students' reactions, being able to read their body language when they are too afraid to ask a question, these were things we were missing teaching remotely." 

East Mesa SOAR Academy Principal Nathan Head said there were a few minor inconveniences, such as tech issues and looking for missing items, but described the overall day as "tremendous." 

"I am happy to report a successful reopening of the SOAR East Mesa school," Head said. "After seven months of distance learning, it was wonderful to have my staff back to in-person instruction." 

He praised the collaboration that went into reopening. 

"[A] big shout out to the SDCOE HR team for their continuous hard work in making sure all our staff had the supports they needed to feel confident about the safe return to campus," Head said. "Thank you to our partners in San Diego County Probation, who have been aiding us through the entirety of these challenging months. Lastly, thank you Tracy [Thompson] and Bruce [Petersen] for your excellence in leadership and for always being there when we need your encouragement and support." Urban Camp teacher Bielman noted the importance of the cross-team work in pulling off a smooth reopening.

"Before school started, I was very anxious about how to adjust to the new 'norms,' but I was encouraged by the students' and Principal [Joanne] Finney's support," she said. "Don't get me wrong. I know there are challenges ahead but it's comforting to know I have a team who will support me." 

In the court schools, and at all of our sites, SDCOE is providing employees with personal protective equipment, as well as training on guidelines for handwashing, cleaning personal spaces, and wearing face coverings. The County of San Diego custodial team is doing additional cleaning of classrooms and common areas, and hand sanitizer and face masks have been distributed. SDCOE employees are being tested regularly for COVID-19, as are the probation employees and students at the facilities. 

Fabiola Resendiz-Castillo, a school office assistant at the Kearny Mesa site, appreciates how hard SDCOE, the reopening committee, and Probation worked to ensure employees were safe. 

"At first I was a little nervous about the idea of returning to work, but being part of the re-opening committee and working alongside our Probation partners made me feel more at ease," she said. "On my first day back, it was really nice to walk into the facility and be greeted with such joy by Probation." 

While a date has not been set for when other SDCOE programs will return to in-person learning, the lessons learned from reopening the court schools will inform the supports and procedures that need to be in place to resume in-person learning at other sites. 

When asked what advice she has for other teachers who will be returning to the classroom, Educational Specialist Hulley was positive. 

"Embrace it! It is good for our students and I believe it will have a positive impact on them educationally, as well as on their mental health," she said. "If everyone is following the safety protocols that have been put in place, I think most teachers are going to be thrilled to get back." 

Madrid, the educational specialist at Urban Camp, offered advice in a similar vein. 

"It is so easy to focus on the limitations, but there is a greater value in focusing on the opportunities we have to empower our students to be resilient," she explained. "They're watching how we endure the pandemic and the changes to our learning environments, and they are paying attention to our ability to rise above and learn together. Show up for your students; they deserve it!"

Top photo above: Counselor Justin Littrell teaches about work readiness at the San Diego SOAR Academy Urban Camp campus.

Second photo above: Teacher Alex Long leads a career technical education class at the San Diego SOAR Academy East Mesa site.