By John Dewey, SYV Charter Superintendent

“HELP! I’m floating in space!” cries teacher Lara Schmeiser to her second graders, as her helmeted figure floats across a red planet. “Quick! Make me a Mars habitat. Make it out of Legos, or cardboard, or 3-D print it. Then, make a Flipgrid and tell me all about it.” Over in fourth grade, teacher Michelle Mortensen puts on her panama hat and sunglasses as she prepares to take her students on a field trip to Rio de Janeiro using a green screen, iMovie, and Google Classroom.

Even with California Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement of public school closures for the remainder of the academic year, school must go on, and these Charter school teachers are responding to the challenge of not having their classrooms and their students in front of them. 

“I just wanted to keep having fun with my students and make sure they were connected during this difficult time of closure,” says Schmeiser. “I made a green screen with a $1 table cover from Walmart, and now I can record myself floating in space, or in a science lab …or wherever I want to drive the kids’ imagination. I created a Flipgrid account so that students can record themselves giving answers and send it back to me. It’s amazing how they’ve responded!”

Mortensen’s goal was to get engaging lessons up on a virtual platform as quickly as possible after the school was closed on St. Patrick’s Day, just over three weeks ago. “I set up a ‘studio’ in a spare room at home with my cellphone camera, a microphone, a green screen, and some random props. It wasn’t complicated to get it together. My students have enjoyed being able to see and hear me. I also think the contact relieves some of the stresses around having to be home all day, it’s good to maintain a schedule for them.”

Teachers at Santa Ynez Valley Charter School have been meeting regularly via Zoom, a video conferencing app, to keep in touch, share and plan ahead. “From the beginning, we agreed to be reasonable with our expectations, seeing as this was unchartered territory and a steep learning curve for all of us,” explains Dr. John Dewey, Executive Director. “We had a lot of anxiety in the beginning with so many unanswered questions. Gradually, we are finding the resources and establishing routines to maintain a steady pace of instruction.”

All the teachers at SYV Charter have regular Zoom classroom meetings with their students. Time in the “Zoom Room” is not used solely for academic work either. Students are also given time for “virtual recess” –  to just hang out and chat with their peers.

“One of the things we have tried to focus on in the last few weeks is making sure our students and parents have access to social time. We want to make sure no child is left behind. Our staff has committed to contacting every parent by phone to ensure all our students are involved in learning in some way. At Santa Ynez Valley Charter School, we provide the resources that they need – whether it’s a chromebook or some assistance getting online. In addition, we have offered to mail paper packets if that is something parents want for their children,” says Dr. Dewey. 

Since Santa Ynez Valley Charter School provides learning for students from TK through eighth grade, the teachers have used a wide variety of online resources depending on the age of the students. These resources have included Quizlet, YouTube, Flipgrid, Kahoot, Hoopla, Epic, and more. “It’s amazing to see what technologies we can access – so many companies are offering free services to schools. In a time like this, we realize just how resilient and resourceful we can be as teachers and learners,” reveals Dr. Dewey. 

So far, the turnout is very high for the new normal of remote learning. In some grades, teachers are seeing close to one hundred percent participation. In a recent fifth grade Language Arts Zoom class, every student was present. After Spring Break, Dewey plans to work with the staff to set daily morning assemblies online, led by students and facilitated by teachers. Additionally, there is a remote learning webpage on the school’s website, with links to activities, photos, and stories – all with the aim of keeping kids connected with each other. 

Furthermore, the school has a weekly PTSO-sponsored coffee morning that anyone can join via Zoom. Amy Tagles, the PTSO President, appreciates the way the school has come together during this crisis.  Tagles states, “Parents aren’t used to being ‘teachers’, so for some families this has been an extremely trying time. Being able to connect and share is just one way to lighten the burden. We will get through this, and we’ll come out stronger as a school community.”

Santa Ynez Valley Charter School is now in its 20th year as a public school of choice serving families across Santa Barbara County. The school was founded as a collaborative enterprise of parents and teachers, providing an innovative and challenging educational environment that is student centered. Now accepting enrollment for students for the 2020-21 school year.