School District recognized for successes during challenging COVID times

Laguna Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) was among 727 schools and 121 school districts being honored for their demonstrated efforts to support students in four target areas — student engagement, technology distribution, nutrition services and social-emotional well-being.

This award program has taken the place of the California Distinguished Schools (DS) Program this year. It honors and recognizes schools and districts that went above and beyond to implement innovative practices during the 2020-21 school year when California required schools to offer distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the greatest challenges LBUSD faced in 2020-21 was preparing for an unknown array of physical and mental health conditions during the pandemic. In an effort to find innovative solutions that supported both the academic and social-emotional health of our students, administrators, teachers, and support staff spent countless hours during the summer unpacking state and local public health guidance and considering the diverse needs of our student population.

Under the guidance and directives from state and local health officials, including the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), California Department of Education (CDE), Orange County Health Care Agency (OCHCA), and Orange County Department of Education (OCDE), the LBUSD team worked to place students into stable cohorts that would minimize the number of students who might need to quarantine in the event of a COVID-19 exposure.

Out of this collaborative research and design process, administrators and middle and high school teachers developed a hybrid trimester learning model that provided physically safe, social-emotional centered (SEC) student schedules with a high-quality, robust education.

Staff considered several hybrid learning models after examining studies and school programs from all over the world. They ultimately recommended the SEC student schedules within the trimester hybrid model because it was able to:

–Accomplish social distancing requirements through stable student and staff cohorts.

–Minimize cross-interaction between cohorts.

–Allow students to focus on two courses at a given time, rather than a traditional six-course, semester model.

–Allow teachers to reduce class loads to increase focus on teacher-student relationships and support.

–Allow families the flexibility to decide to remain in a distance learning format even when schools reopened.

“Our teachers worked together to make sure the Learning Management System was used effectively,” shared Michael Morrison, Chief Technology Officer. “Teachers focused on using formative assessment applications that helped them gauge the effectiveness of their teaching.”

Dr. Michael Keller, LBUSD Director of Social Emotional Support, noted that LBUSD did not see a major increase in D’s and F’s in the 2020-21 school year at the secondary level that other school districts experienced during the pandemic.

Dr. Keller said, “Staff reported that this is in part due to teachers developing stronger and closer relationships with students due to lower student-to-teacher ratios. This enabled teachers and staff to respond to student performance concerns or disengagement immediately. 

“In addition, student perceptions of care, support and belonging actually improved in 2020-21 from two years prior as measured on the Challenge Success anonymous student survey. Student perceptions of care and support increased from 3.7 in 2018 to 4.0 on a scale from one (low) to five (high). 

“Student feelings of belonging at school increased to 3.7 from 3.5 two years prior. Additionally, 91% of students had positive or neutral feelings about opportunities for regular participation in engaging learning activities and 86% of students had positive or neutral feelings about having at least one caring relationship with a staff member at school. 

“In the survey, our secondary students’ most common words to describe their middle or high school experiences in 2020-21 were high-quality, fun, caring and welcoming.”

The data analysis confirmed the importance of prioritizing positive relationships and connections between students and teachers. It also indicated the positive impact on student achievement that can occur when students focus on fewer classes at one time.

According to LBHS Senior Mia Lepage, “COVID has had a big impact on students and teachers. When teachers open up and give a nice comfortable environment for students, they want to open up.” 

The District has since returned to a six-period, yearlong block schedule. Staff is continuing to research and explore ways to integrate the lessons learned from the Social-Emotional Centered (SEC) Student Schedules practice into future programs and schedules.

“I honestly couldn’t be more proud of our District,” shared Jason Viloria Ed.D., Superintendent of Schools. “Our community and staff played integral roles in the success of our students, keeping them engaged and connected and allowing them to thrive during such a challenging time.”

Laguna Beach Unified School District prides itself on ensuring each student gains the knowledge, experience, world perspectives, and skills needed to become a lifelong learner and producer in a competitive and interconnected world.