Kindergartners' feet bounced on the tiny painted footprints that dot the sidewalk outside of Jefferson Elementary on Thursday as they eagerly awaited entry onto campus for the very first time.
Parents adjusted face masks with cartoons and rainbows, smoothed stray hairs, snapped one more photo and waved goodbye.
Thursday was the first time general education students returned to the Bakersfield City School District's elementary school campuses since the pandemic began last year. The district welcomed transitional kindergarteners through second grade students and special education students at the district's 35 elementary schools as a part of its reopening plan.
"It's going to be really good to get life back on campus," said Jefferson Elementary Principal Shannon Jensen.
School reopenings are big events in every community, bringing a sense of structure to daily life that COVID has interrupted. But it's especially true of schools in high-poverty areas, where the schools serve as major support systems for their residents. That's most of the schools in Bakersfield City School District, and it's true of Jefferson Elementary where the community is tightly knit around its school.
Jensen said that to continue to offer that support the school has done many more home visits in the last year than it has in years past. But she's heard from many parents that they're looking forward to the routine school provides.
"It's a relief, really," said DeLeon Williams.
She dropped off two of her kids for their first day this year, which she said would allow her family to take on more work and get back on track financially. She said some structure and balance would be good for her energetic kindergartner Elliot, too.
"He's a wild child," she laughed.
Christine Campas, the Family and Community Engagement (FACE) liaison for Jefferson Elementary, has helped Jefferson parents navigate the pandemic through parent classes and sometimes late-night discussions when they need it.
"Their anxiety is over the top," she said.
She said she's helped coach a mom who wanted to drop out of college, telling her to hang on a little longer until school reopened. She's walked parents through the district's safety procedures to help ease their minds, because many were extremely nervous about COVID.
Ultimately, half of families sent their students back: of the school's 542 students, 276 have opted to come back for in-person learning, Jensen said.
Campas worked to assure families by going over the district's procedures, such as regular asymptomatic testing. On Thursday, it was Jefferson's turn for their staff to receive a rapid COVID-19 test. Staff monitor students to make sure they stay socially distanced during recess.
Alexis Borja, the mother of a kindergartner and first grader, has been impressed by the school's discussion of safety standards and its communication.
She's been studying at Bakersfield College to be a teacher herself, and she's seen the importance of hands-on learning for her own children. Now felt like the right time to send her students back into classrooms and she felt comfortable.
She's also grateful she'll have the morning to focus on her own homework without having to monitor her children at the same time. It was a new feeling she was going to have to get used to.
"It feels weird," Borja said.
On campus, BCSD teachers have been a little nervous and a little excited about the return of students.
"You can feel the energy, too, with the teachers," Jensen said. "They're extremely excited to be back with the teachers and do what they do best, which is teach and connect with the kids."
Yuliana Rivera, a first grade teacher, said that her class seemed to pick right where they left off and they seemed to remember all the rules they had learned in distance learning.
"I’m excited," Rivera said. "I couldn't wait to be back at school and see their cute little faces."