It was a sunny, beautiful day for the very youngest students of Louise Sandrini Elementary to return to campus on Thursday. A row of parents strained to peek through the gates and snap one last photo as their children lined up and then filtered into classrooms for their very first day of school on campus this year.
The final quarter of the year is in sight, but it did have the feeling of a first day of school, right down to one little boy who clung to his mother, crying, not quite ready to part from her.
It was a big day for Panama-Buena Vista Union School District, which began to fully re-open all of its elementary school campuses to in-person learning for the first time since they were shut down when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Kern County nearly one year ago.
“The welcoming back of students to their place of learning is the best feeling,” said Katie Russell, the district’s superintendent. “Our whole family has been looking forward to this day.”
Kindergartners and transitional kindergartners were welcomed back Thursday. Primary students are expected in the district next Thursday, and intermediate grade levels are tentatively scheduled for the following week.
New state guidance allows campuses to open up to students up to sixth grade, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has been pushing elementary schools to open during this last leg of the school year. PBVUSD, which consists of 18,500 students, or about 10 percent of the students in the Kern County, is the first of the county’s larger elementary districts to start its phased reopening.
Next week Greenfield Union will begin bringing on students as well. The return of grades seven and above is on hold for PBVUSD and the rest of the county until Kern’s COVID rates dip into the red tier.
Sandrini parent Naile Ramirez said her 6-year-old daughter had initially struggled with distance learning, but over the school year she had grown used to the routine. But on Thursday, she was happy to see her daughter back in school for the in-person experience.
“I feel so much better now that she’s back for in-person learning,” said Naile Ramirez, through a Spanish translator. “It’s better for my daughter.”
The young students were mostly wearing masks from home, and they looked surprisingly at ease at their spaced-out desks surrounded by plexiglass. Teachers walked them through familiar morning routines like songs and a few new rules.
“I said, ‘You have to treat it like it’s the first day,’” said principal Morgan Hicks.
Candice Neill’s class of transitional kindergartners were creating nametags to put on their plexiglass. Kindergartners giggled as their teacher Mary Mota pantomimed crawling on the floor, which is a no-no. The new COVID-safe kindergarten classroom no longer includes carpet time, and certainly no crawling around like a baby. She let students know if their masks got dirty, she would have a new one ready for them.
A majority of families have opted to return to Sandrini classrooms, and attendance was nearly perfect on Day 1. Most of the kindergarten classes of about 25 or 26 had about 15 or 16 students opt for in-person learning. Kindergarten teachers will teach the students remaining in distance learning in the afternoon.
On Monday, Hicks held four meetings with parents letting them know what school would look like when it was open and what kind of safety procedures would be in place.
Sandrini has opted to allow recess for these students, Hicks said. One at a time classes will get a short break in a staggered schedule in different parts of the spacious campus.
Students will be allowed to use the play structures if they wash their hands before and after they use it at portable hand-washing stations outside. Other play equipment like balls is too tricky to constantly clean, Hicks said, but aides will lead students in games to play during recess that don’t require close contact.
“The big test will be next Thursday when we have all our first through third grade,” she said.
It’s tricky because more families of older students are requesting to return to in-person learning. As the mother of a fourth-grader in the district, Hicks said she fully understands. But it does pose some logistical snarls, namely that not everyone who wants to return will necessarily fit in the classroom at the same time under COVID-19 guidelines.
She said teachers didn’t want to give up their students three-quarters of the way through the year, and have them transferred to a teacher who specializes in distance learning. Hicks dreaded the idea of telling parents they had a new teacher, too.
They came up with a compromise: Teachers will offer instruction to a small group of in-person students in the afternoon while teaching students online as well. Those who offer simultaneous teaching, which can be very taxing, receive an extra stipend.
“I was so happy. Our teachers said, ‘We want to keep our kids, we’ll do whatever it takes to keep them,’” Hicks said.
That next wave of students arrive Thursday, March 11.