Laguna Blanca School
Early kindergarten students show off their “owl wing spans” at Laguna Blanca’s Lower School in Montecito. (Tara Broucqsault / Laguna Blanca School photo)

Mieke Delwiche, a kindergarten instructor at Laguna Blanca’s Lower School for the past 12 years, took a picture of herself wearing a face mask.

She snapped another photograph of herself. This time, without wearing a face mask.

“I sent it home, so the kids could see what I looked like under my mask,” Delwiche said. “It can be a little bit scary at first, and being kindergarten, not many of my children were here last year.”

Young students this fall see about half of their teacher’s face and those of their classmates during in-person instruction on campus because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Delwiche welcomed her students with a photograph of her grinning.

“I wanted them to know what I looked like when I smiled,” she told Noozhawk.

Early kindergarten through fourth grade at Laguna Blanca’s Montecito campus, at 260 San Ysidro Road, reopened for in-person learning in September.

Laguna Blanca School

Wearing a face mask, a Laguna Blanca Lower School student attends in-person instruction at the campus’ outdoor learning spaces. (Tara Broucqsault / Laguna Blanca School photo)

Earlier this week, Laguna Blanca School officials communicated to school families with students in grades seven through 12 that there is a strong possibility of welcoming those students back to campus in mid-October, according to information forecasted by Santa Barbara County public health officials.

The probability of making the transition to in-person learning is becoming more likely because the county’s COVID-19 metrics are improving as described in California’s reopening framework, said Tara Broucqsault, Laguna Blanca School’s communications director.

Laguna Blanca School is a private, co-educational, college preparatory day school for students in early kindergarten through 12th grade.

With schools throughout the county grappling with bringing children back into the classroom amid the contagion, Laguna Blanca’s Lower School is attaching a positive meaning to the situation.

“We have been focusing on the positive in our approach,” Head of Lower School Andy Surber said. “As a child, you don’t have to hear all of the things you are not allowed to do during the school day.”

Lower School staff members came up with a creative idea to ensure that children remember to maintain a distance amid the coronavirus crisis.

The school’s mascot is an owl, so students stretch their arms to keep their distance from one another while on campus.

Students reach their arms out to their sides as far as possible and pretend to be a flying owl. This is helping avoid close contact with others.

Public health officials recommend that the public practice social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19. Laguna Blanca quickly made the transition to remote learning in March when the coronavirus first swept the region.

Schools throughout the county were left without the proper time to fully prepare for the learning setting that COVID-19 had created.

Laguna Blanca School

Science class is held outdoors at Laguna Blanca’s Lower School in Montecito. (Tara Broucqsault / Laguna Blanca School photo)

“We always missed that in-person experience,” Surber said. “As we went through the remote program and went into the summer, there was a good push from families to have some sort of in-person instruction over the summer.”

With group sizes capped at six students and one teacher, the Lower School staff ran a four-week academic summer camp, called “Snowy Plover Summer Camp,” on its Montecito campus. Children ages 4 to 11 participated in the day camps.

“They understood there were certain things we had to do to be on campus,” Surber said.

Delwiche worked the summer camp program at the Lower School campus in July.

“The great part about summer school is that it gave me the time to practice and see what strategies worked, and what strategies didn’t work,” she explained.

“I found out pretty quickly that it was challenging for the kids to understand what a six-foot social distancing distance was.”

Delwiche found that it can be hard for kindergarten students to keep their at least 6-foot separation as they line up.

She solved the problem with spaced-out carpet sit spots that give kids a designated place. The Velcro sticks to carpet.

“I started putting those down, so it was clear where the children needed to stand,” Delwiche said.

The California Department of Public Health has instructed schools “that all adults stay six feet from one another and six feet away from children, while students should maintain six feet of distance from one another as practicable.”

During the summer camps, Delwiche had individual materials for each child to minimize sharing interactions.

“I got to practice organizing because with the little children, keeping track of supplies can be a challenge,” she said.

A hands-on learning tool now goes in individual bins.

“We use a lot of Play-Doh in class,” Delwiche said. “Usually, it is a center rotation, and I put some Play-Doh on each mat for four or five kids, and then they can use it, and the next rotation comes through — they wash their hands and play with it.

“I had to change that, and make sure they each have their own Play-Doh for the remainder of the time,” she continued. “There was no sharing of the materials.”

Laguna Blanca School

Desks are spaced at least 6 feet apart at Laguna Blanca’s Lower School kindergarten class. (Tara Broucqsault / Laguna Blanca School photo)

The importance of sharing with others is a big lesson taught in kindergarten, Delwiche said.

“That’s something we have to discourage, which is tricky,” she said.

Laguna Blanca officials limit the sharing of materials to keep everyone safe during face-to-face instruction.

If the instruction relied on shared objects, each student had his or her own individual set of supplies over the summer.

“We were thoughtful about the activities that we were putting on,” said Surber, who also mentioned the Lower School faculty and staff stepped up in a range of ways.

The young campers would keep on their face masks, a public health measure to fight the spread of COVID-19. The face mask can slip down or come off when eating while maintaining social distancing.

“We were pleasantly surprised about kids wearing masks,” Surber said. “When kids are wearing masks at school, there are breaks in the day for snack and lunch.”

Santa Barbara County’s Reopening in a Safe Environment, the economic reopening plan, helped assist the Lower School complete a series of tasks that allowed the school to safely reopen. It includes guidance for schools and school-based programs to create a safer environment for students, families and staff. It applied to both distance learning and in-person learning.

“The Public Health Department has been helpful in sharing of information to make sure that what we can do on campus is done in the absolute safest way possible,” Surber said.

Something different on campus is the amount of thorough cleaning and disinfecting, he added.

“That is from our amazing maintenance crew and staff, and also from our teachers making sure the rooms are as clean and safe as we possibly can,” Surber said.

“The work as a teacher has changed a little bit in person, but they stepped up over and over to make sure our school year started in a safe and smooth way.”

A larger, two-week summer camp, called “Summer at Laguna,” was held in August at the Montecito campus. It included a group of about 60 kids at a time, and campers were in groups of about 10 to 12 people.

Children ages 4 to 10 were placed in age-based groups and experienced several offerings throughout the day, including arts and crafts, outside games and sports, and music.

For Courtney Guay, a Lower School art teacher, the experiences during summer camp were beneficial because it helped her prepare for the new academic school year this fall.

“I learned a lot about how to efficiently clean, and manage my time and supplies,” she said.

At first, Guay felt a bit nervous to start the summer camps. But, she felt immediate relief after the first day.

“Our team had it down in regards to safety,” she said.

New considerations have emerged in the school setting, such as integrating the time students may need to wash their hands properly. Public health officials say hand-washing is one of the best ways people can protect from getting sick.

When asked about her recommendations about returning to in-person instruction, Guay said, “My biggest advice to educators would be to slow everything down. Don’t expect to go at your normal pace and don’t expect to speed things up.”

“Everything takes time,” she said, “and you have to allocate the time like hand-washing time.”

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.