Two years have passed since COVID-19 forced schools around the world to close their doors, a tectonic shift in daily life with effects still unfolding.
It was March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. By Friday, March 13, many schools here and beyond announced that campuses would cease in-person instruction and move to distance learning to help stop the spread of the virus. The decision catapulted our school leaders, teachers, and staff into a logistical maze as they scrambled to convert a 200-year-old American education system into an online model in a matter of days. The County Education Office supported nearly 70,000 students, educators, and families each step of the way, working together and sharing information with our 20 school districts to solve the evolving problems.
By March 28, 2020, nearly all U.S. public school buildings were closed, and almost all would remain closed for many months thereafter, affecting at least 55.1 million students in 124,000 U.S. public and private schools (Education Week, Jan. 2022).
Amid the closures, schools dove into problem-solving mode: How to ensure every home had computer devices, adequate Internet access, and appropriate space for remote learning? How to redesign curriculum and instruction for Zoom school? How to connect students to meals? What about child care? Preschools? After-school care? Access to counselors? Special education support services? What about sports, art, physical education, theatrical productions, field trips, upcoming dances, graduations?
And that was just the beginning.
In the days, weeks, months, and now two years that followed, school communities navigated a state of constant flux and entanglements requiring immediate solutions. The journey exposed vulnerabilities in almost every corner of the system while also bringing to light what those of us in education have long known: Schools are responsible for far more than academics alone. They are relied upon as sources of information and familial support. They provide a place of community, belonging, and consistency. They connect children to other trusted adults who care about their well-being, safety, and future. They nurture children’s emotional, social, physical, and intellectual development and introduce them to life experiences different from their own.
The drastic shift in availability of these supports was confounding.
As we moved through the first stages of the pandemic, concerns quickly emerged about inequities, gaps, and disproportionate impacts on students. Concerns also soon surfaced about student and teacher morale, learning progress and growth, and a new term: “pandemic fatigue.” Then came “Zoom fatigue,” “device fatigue,” “decision fatigue,” “mask fatigue,” and even “compassion fatigue.”
By fall 2020, due to health and safety restrictions including requiring six feet of distance between desks and on buses, campuses began the year with varying degrees of “openness.” Given the social-distancing mandates and space availability, some opened for only small groups of students, while others offered hybrid schedules or even full reopening.
In early December 2020, as the virus continued to surge and COVID-19 cases placed a strain on hospital ICU units, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered a statewide stay-at-home order that pushed us into the next chapter of a book still being written.
After more than a year of dizzying changes and inconsistencies, by fall 2021, all of Santa Barbara County’s public school campuses were open to in-person instruction. School communities rejoiced at being back on campus and vowed to keep their doors open to the fullest extent possible. Oh, the joy … playgrounds full of ebullient laughter, science labs energetically testing students’ hypotheses, performing arts on stage and in motion, and athletic competitions back in full swing!
Today, we find ourselves facing a new set of blended realities: relieved to see COVID-19 cases decreasing, and yet concerned about an increasing need to support individuals who feel loss, disappointment, fatigue, isolation, and depression. We are excited about moving on, while also stopping to listen carefully to impassioned voices who have had enough and need more; grateful for how far we have come, and worried about how easily progress could be undone.
With two years behind us, public health officials are now guiding us around a new corner, one that includes understanding that this virus will be part of daily life.
So, our COVID-19 story continues. As individuals, I’m certain that we will find ourselves moving forward at varying speeds and in many directions. In schools, we will continue to work triple-time to meet the needs of those who rely on us. And once this chapter has long ended, I hope we will find that this pandemic did not just merely occur, marked by dates or events, but that it helped forge a stronger and more resilient path for today’s children and for generations to come.
Dr. Susan Salcido is Santa Barbara County Superintendent of Schools.