Students and teachers respond to Castilleja’s new hybrid learning model

Mr.+Cortella%27s+senior+class++meets+for+the+first+time+on+opening+day++

Elke Teichmann

Mr. Cortella’s senior class meets for the first time on opening day

After a long few months of sitting behind computers and learning from our homes, Castilleja has finally started to welcome students back to campus! From the week of October 26th until Thanksgiving break, students engaged with a hybrid model and alternated between in-person and distance learning. The schedule was modified to accommodate for a smooth transition, in which one cycle of period 1-7 (with an additional free period) occurs over two days.

Castilleja has implemented a system of COVID-19 protocols to ensure that our return to campus promotes a safe environment for all members of the Casti community. When on campus, everyone collectively protects each other by wearing masks and physical distancing. All classrooms are set up to adapt to physical distancing protocols, with desks facing forward and 6ft apart, and plexiglass for faculty members and teachers to use.

Mr. Carlson, the Interim Head of Upper School, shares Castilleja’s primary goals for this 4-week period of hybrid learning. He explains that there are two main focuses: “to give everyone a sense of what being a community is all about” and to “identify areas for improvement in our various systems.” He hopes that, throughout this period of time, we will be able to strengthen our relationships and bring them back to the distance learning model.

He also stresses the importance of leading with compassion and patience, and acknowledging that everyone in the community has valid reasons for the decisions they make in these unprecedented times. When we’re able to refrain from making assumptions, we can do our best to stay united through a hybrid model, which is the most crucial aspect of Castilleja. Mr. Carlson says, “The lasting part is like how our relationships work and how our community holds up.”

The observations and feedback given in these 4 weeks will all contribute to plans for future models of hybrid or in person learning. “All of this is meant to help inform us as to how we’re going to run our programs in the second semester, ” Mr. Carlson states.

Students have responded to this transition to on-campus learning with various different emotions. There has been an overwhelmingly positive response from a number of students who have greatly appreciated the opportunity to return to campus with their peers. Yaiza Fernandez ‘23 initial response was one of gratitude. She explains, “It was actually really positive overall, it was great to see everyone and just kind of have those social interactions that a lot of us were missing at home.” She and many other students were happy to have the chance to see some familiar faces and have side conversations that aren’t possible virtually.

Carolina Pavlik ‘22 also enjoyed the activity that’s involved in the on-campus learning model, and believes that it promotes a more healthy school experience. She said, “It’s nice to not sit in the same place every day. Even just walking around in between classes is a stress reliever, and it separates school life from home life.”

The seniors, despite having to begin their last school year at Castilleja online, have truly embraced their time on campus. Violet Glickman ‘21 really valued the opportunity to return to in-person learning. “We seniors have definitely not missed a step in bringing our presence back to the Castilleja community,” she states.

The seniors have finally been able to participate in the long-standing Casti senior traditions, such as wearing college sweatshirts. The seniors also have made the most out of the COVID restrictions by creating an outdoor version of the Slounge (senior lounge). Violet describes, “we have turned Tent #4 into the stent! “Inside,” you will find members of the senior class (six feet apart with masks on, of course), back where they belong.”

Students across all grades have definitely also noticed that there are some prominent challenges that come with a COVID safe in-person learning model, which is to be expected in a pandemic. The restrictions, although unavoidable, can be difficult to navigate at first. “The only challenge with that was the arrangement of the desks because they need to be 6ft apart, which was not very convenient. For example, in Biology, I couldn’t see the board due to where I was sitting in the classroom,” Carolina explains. She also noted that there was nothing anyone could do to fix obstacles like this, and it will simply take time to adjust.

Another challenge a lot of students recognized was how unnatural it was to keep a distance from other classmates. Yaiza says, “I didn’t really mind wearing a mask, I think for me it was harder to stay 6 ft apart from everyone, especially walking up and down the stairs with the different signs was confusing.” Regardless of these added barriers due to COVID-19, Yaiza expressed what many of students believe: “But in the end, it didn’t affect the positive outcomes.”

Although many students have been taking advantage of the option to return to on-campus learning, other students have made the decision to continue with the distance learning model. Elina Khoshnevis ‘22 explains, “Although I think it’s great that Castilleja is offering an in-person option for those who want to attend school, I opted to continue with the distance learning model. It’s worked really well for me during the past few months and I’m glad that I’m able to take as few risks as possible by avoiding large groups of people for my high risk fam members.”

Many students, including Elina, have numerous valid reasons for making the choice to keep learning online, and the school has put technology in place to accommodate for those students, like television screens and additional microphones to promote a successful hybrid model. “The technology in the classrooms has been a great tool for us to feel included while others are learning in person. I don’t feel like I’m missing any information, and the teachers have done a great job of accommodating distance learners,” Elina says as she reflects on the hybrid model.

Teachers and faculty have also been responding to this transition in a number of ways and have had to grapple with trying to create an environment that includes students both in person and online. As hoped, many teachers did notice an improvement in the classroom dynamic when teaching in person. Ms. Shea, Head of the Dance Department, noted that a highlight for her was being able to see students reconnect with their friends and peers after a long period of time apart. She explains further, “The energy you feel when you walk onto campus is great. It’s just so fun to see everyone in person.”

Ms. Fox, a History-Social Science Upper School teacher, was also happy to spend time in the classroom with her students and meet with them face to face rather than over the screen. She says, “Being able to see students in person was really wonderful, especially with my ninth graders because many of them I had never met before.” A lot of her students were freshmen who hadn’t been to campus yet, so meeting them was a highlight for Ms. Fox. She also noticed a boost in her mental health as a result of spending time in the classroom as well as with her colleagues.

Although teachers across various departments saw clear benefits with welcoming some students back onto campus, there were inevitable challenges for teachers when attempting to juggle a hybrid model that splits students into completely separate environments. Ms. Shea, who teaches an intergrade class with students from sophomores to juniors, felt that there were some areas of improvement with the hybrid model. She mentions that, because she teaches such collaborative classes, it was difficult to create a space where students in person could work with students who were remote. Breakout rooms, the tool she used for collaboration prior to the hybrid model, weren’t really possible in this environment, but Tech is working on finding an alternative.

The common goal is definitely to be back on campus as a community together, but there is an undeniable uncertainty, especially for teachers trying to flesh out their curriculum, with the constant back and forth between different learning models. Ms. Fox explains this, “It doesn’t really feel like there’s a flow to it. Because you’re online sometimes and you’re in class and, or you’re in person. So there was a lot to navigate in a pretty short amount of time.” Along with the abrupt changes, there is also the fear of a COVID-19 infection that creates another burden for teachers and students alike. Ms. Fox does believe, however, that Castilleja has implemented precautions that have “mitigated those risks as much as possible.”

This 4-week period has also been an opportunity for teachers and faculty to rethink how they will proceed with their classes in the second semester, depending on if students will or will not be on campus. When thinking about moving into second semester, Ms. Shea talks about reevaluating her expectations for the year: “I think also this period has let us readjust our expectations. As great as hybrid is and being on campus, we cannot get through as much material that way – it’s virtually impossible. Everything takes longer.”

Teachers also recognize that each individual family has to make the decision that’s best for them and their safety when it comes to returning to campus. This definitely raises a question regarding equity between different learning environments when thinking about the second semester. Ms. Fox says, “Castilleja has done a wonderful job trying to accommodate people and make sure this is all equitable. But I just think we need to be extra mindful of the equity around, you know, who comes back to campus and who doesn’t.”

Overall, the faculty is optimistic about making improvements in the future. Ms Shea says, “Technology will change, teachers will change, students will change and we’ll learn to adapt and be more adept at learning and teaching in this environment that we’re going to be in when we come back to the hybrid model.”

During the last week of the hybrid learning period, Castilleja was forced to close its doors and return to distance learning a few days before expected due to COVID-19 concerns. This was unfortunate, but essential when prioritizing public health.

Although there are layers of complexities to explore, there was an undeniable amount of thinking and planning that went into making the gradual return to campus. Carolina expresses this, “I really appreciate all the hard work that Castilleja has done to get us back on campus while being safe and avoiding a COVID-19 outbreak.”