Wednesday marked a significant milestone for freshmen in the Kern High School District.
While many elected to return to the classroom for in-person instruction — their first opportunity to do so in more than a year — they also entered their new high schools for the first time.
An annual rite of passage typically reserved for the late summer and early fall came this year in April, with temperatures rising and the Bakersfield summer hovering in the not-too-distant future.
In a year of starts and stops, closures and then reopenings with modifications, ninth graders' return was another landmark in the COVID-19 pandemic school year.
“I’m excited and I’m nervous. There’s a lot of emotions, actually,” said 15-year-old Kohen Rucks, just before walking through the front entrance at Liberty High School. “But I’m also glad to see people and interact with others. I’m really happy about that.”
Rucks, along with those gathered outside Liberty for a welcome-back pep rally featuring school administrators, teachers and parents, said the social interaction alone made it worth being there.
“It’s been a while,” Rucks said. “Too long.”
Brooke Richter, a Liberty graduate and first-year teacher at the school, said incoming freshmen experienced the same tried-and-true issues that would be present during any first day back. They faced everything from finding the right classroom to making sure their Chromebooks worked, from being on time to having questions about their workload.
"Normal stuff. The same exact way it would be," Richter said with a laugh. "Only this is in April, of course, not in August."
Carolina Cavazos, the parent liaison at Liberty, said the past 12 months have been hard on everyone.
She saw it firsthand with her son, a senior at the school who graduated early this year, and her daughter, who is a Liberty freshman.
Cavazos said her daughter was excited to simply have contact with teachers, who will now see her in person face-to-face and get to know her as an individual. Cavazos said learning through a computer screen has had its benefits, but also its drawbacks.
“You see your kids diminish. No motivation really, no real point. There’s frustration,” she said.
Cavazos said that local schools returning to in-person instruction signifies a potential light at the end of the tunnel.
“I think mentally and physically, it’s just so good,” Cavazos said. “Students get to come back, they’re with friends again. They get that stimulation with people, that’s so very important. It’s good for all of us. The kids, the, parents, the staff.”
Freshmen coming back is the latest step taken this month for KHSD schools reopening their doors to all grade levels.
It began April 6, when all mild/moderate students with disabilities and remaining ROC/CTEC students were welcomed back to campus.
On April 12, seniors returned to their respective school sites while sophomores and juniors are scheduled to be back April 28.
Students who wish to remain in a distance learning format can do so and all students will also continue on the current staggered block scheduling. Other protocols such as temperature checks, PPE, disinfection and social distancing are in place to ensure safety while students are on campus.
Richter gave Wednesday's return a glowing review. Her two freshmen English classes combined to have 42 students in attendance, with one of the periods near capacity.
"Over half of the classes voluntarily came in," she said. "That's impressive."
Liberty Principal Libby Wyatt said many of the freshmen who returned Wednesday have had family members precede them at the school. They have heard all about the traditions and what being a part of the Liberty family means. They haven’t been able to see that first-hand during the pandemic, but on Wednesday that changed.
“They’ve been aching to get back, to experience these things,” she said.
“We’ve never had to do this before, managing this during a pandemic. It’s new for everyone and we’re doing the best we can every day. But we’re sure glad to have them back.”