Teacher and Student in the classroom wearing masks
from the field
By Peter Livingston and Tom Courtney
Pandemic slows but can’t stop Lucerne Valley USD
Lucerne Valley Elementary was one of the first public schools in the state to open for in-class instruction

he Lucerne Valley Unified School District was on a roll. Our students were thriving with new programs such as AVID, Cadet Corps and career tech at the Lucerne Valley Middle/High School; a new STEM Lab, Next Gen Math and Lexia Reading programs at the elementary school; district enrollment numbers had increased by 23 percent in just a few years; and test scores were rising.

Then, in March, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and our schools — along with most others in California — were suddenly closed for in-school learning.

Although initially we were disappointed — devastated, actually — our district leadership team headed by Superintendent Peter Livingston, Assistant Superintendent Nate Lambdin and School Board President Tom Courtney got to work. We quickly realized we had to accept a new reality and find innovative ways to keep our students learning, and somehow, we had to get them back to where they truly thrive as learners — the classroom.

While some districts focused on what they couldn’t do, our vision homed in on what we actually could do. We hit the pavement running with the goal of safely returning students to our three campuses. Our administrative team truly embraced the importance of working collaboratively with all of our stakeholders.  

Knowing how instrumental our teachers are to the student learning process, we included our teacher-union leadership in our reopening dialogue. With strong leadership at the core of our teacher’s union, it was quickly apparent that we shared the belief that students learn best in person, in school. Our classified staff and parents were also an integral part of our reopening plan and were actively engaged throughout the process.

Our parents, and the community at-large, rallied behind the district with support like a home crowd at a Friday night football game. The fight for our kids was on. 

After new state guidelines dashed any hopes that schools would open in May, we decided to get things done the best we could. We continued providing continuity of learning, nutrition through our free meal curbside program and social-emotional supports during the unprecedented closures. On the staffing front, the district continued moving ahead by hiring new teachers at the elementary school and expanding programs at the middle-high school level.

While some school districts experienced difficult labor negotiations, ours went smoothly, with teacher and classified bargaining units and management quickly finding common ground and agreeing to contracts. All parties agreed, “We are more than a district, we are a family.”

Many school districts chose to hold virtual or drive-by high school graduation ceremonies, but our 2020 high school graduating class and their families enjoyed an in-person, socially distanced event spread out on our sports field. It turned out to be one of the most memorable — and appreciated — high school graduations in our district’s history.

Preparing for the new school year
We knew earlier in the school year that we would lose a key member of our leadership team when Burt Umstead, the principal of the elementary school and an assistant superintendent, would retire at the end of the school year. His replacement, first-year Principal Ricky Anderson and new Assistant Principal Joanna Mora, would be faced with a historic challenge. But over the course of the next few months, they and their staff did everything possible to give their students the education they deserved.

The summer of 2020 was unlike any other. It provided an opportunity for brainstorming and working to overcome new obstacles that arose during the coronavirus pandemic. One of the biggest challenges has been ensuring that each child has access to distance learning. With the majority of Lucerne Valley students meeting economically disadvantaged criteria, the lack of adequate internet service to connect their Chromebooks to Google Classroom or Zoom was a real issue. Our information technology team installed WiFi in our high school student parking lot so students without access at home could connect. The IT department also obtained several hundred mobile hotspots that were delivered quickly to school families that didn’t have internet service.

Also working tirelessly during the summer was our maintenance and custodial staff, which installed clear desk partitions in classrooms, outdoor handwashing stations, hand sanitizer dispensers, upgraded air filters throughout campuses, touchless temperature scanners at both school sites, touchless student check in for students in the cafeterias, and countless other jobs. Disposable gloves and face shields were purchased for staff members along with masks for students. A year’s supply of hand sanitizer was purchased and made available throughout each campus. Air conditioning filters were upgraded to high-efficiency particulate (HEPA) air filters.

Well before the start of school on Aug. 6, we planned for the implementation of a hybrid schedule at the elementary school. Under Principal Anderson’s guidance, the school created a student list for those who would be part of one of two cohorts. Cohort 1 would go to school on Monday and Tuesday, and Cohort 2 would attend school on Thursday and Friday. When one cohort is on campus, the other cohort is working on assignments aligned to what the teacher has taught. The teachers reach out during their office hours to check in on students and provide additional instruction or help. The cohort size of a class is under 12 students and measures are in place to have students socially distanced as much as possible. On Wednesdays, both cohorts are learning through distance learning supported by their teacher with virtual instruction.

The hybrid model allows fewer students on-site and allows the school to stagger lunchtimes and provide spacing on the playground and field areas. The school day is shorter but features teacher online office hours and instruction for all their students in both cohorts for the days they are not on campus. (Parents also had the choice to continue their students’ distance learning-only schedule.)

Teachers played a key role in developing the guidelines to reopen schools and provide all the necessary precautions to ensure our teachers and students had a safe learning environment. Our teachers were surveyed and their concerns were addressed by the reopening committee. Additional precautions were added to the reopening plan based on teacher concerns. The Lucerne Valley Teachers Association reopening survey revealed that 83 percent of our teachers wanted to return to a full or hybrid reopening, according to longtime teacher Cindy Lazenby who currently serves as president of the LVTA.

District schools began with distance learning only, but, on Aug. 12, the district’s waiver request to open the elementary school to in-class learning became the first waiver approved by San Bernardino County’s Health Officer Dr. Erin Gustafson. She said the COVID-19 case rate of rural Lucerne Valley — a town of about 5,500 residents, 25 miles from the nearest city and more than an hour from metropolitan San Bernardino — was below the recommended threshold set by the state for considering an elementary school waiver for opening in-person instruction. Dr. Gustafson cited Lucerne Valley’s COVID-19 low community case rate of only 56.8 per 100,000 people compared to the county’s more-than-three-times higher overall rate of about 200 per 100,000 and the district’s comprehensive School Reopening Plan for the approval.

On Aug. 20, Lucerne Valley Elementary School opened for its first day of in-person learning. With numerous news media outlets documenting the occasion, students got off school buses and went to class for the first time since March. There were lots of smiles from students, parents, teachers, administrators and school board members.

We know that we are living in uncertain times and that challenges will keep arising, but as long as we keep our priorities in mind we believe our district will move forward. More than ever, we follow our belief statement: “We embrace being a small district where each student has a name and not just a number.”

Peter Livingston is the superintendent of the Lucerne Valley Unified School District. Tom Courtney, who has been elected to the LVUSD governing board for more than 25 years, currently serves as school board president.