Familiar scenes reappeared in Kern County on Wednesday morning: students up early waiting for the bus, playgrounds full of children at recess and a surprising volume of traffic.
It was the first day of school for students in 18 districts in Bakersfield serving more than 110,000 students, according to the Kern County Superintendent of Schools. Some of those school districts include the city's largest — Kern High, Bakersfield City and Panama-Buena Vista Union.
The first day of school is always an emotional day, marking new beginnings, new classes and new goals, but this year brought up new kinds of feelings for students who have been on campus sporadically, if at all, since March 2020.
"It's strange," said Carissa Perez, a sophomore at Mira Monte High School.
"I find it quite nerve-wracking, because it's the first time we're here, even though we're sophomores," said Cristal Perez.
"The freshmen are lost, the sophomores are lost, the juniors haven't been here, the seniors don't care anymore," laughed sophomore Jackie Marroquin-Hernandez.
Upper classmen who weren't new to campus also confessed to feeling mixed emotions on an unusual first day of school.
Except for cheerleading practice, junior Sarah Flores hadn't seen her classmates since the shutdown. She was a little nervous.
"It's weird seeing everyone," she said.
Like many schools in Kern County, Mira Monte didn't reopen its campus to all its students until spring of 2021.
The high school in southeast Bakersfield also had some of the lowest initial numbers of students returning for in-person learning in the Kern High School District. In April, that number was 21.72 percent with 583 students. Compare that to Liberty High's 38.16 percent in-person return rate.
More students returned in May, and many more returned to campus for summer school — more than 1,700 students.
But the campus hasn't quite looked or sounded like this since March 2020. During her first period class, choir teacher Amie Hiatt asked students to sing their first note. Hiatt became a bit verklempt as they held a "mi."
"I have not heard a choir in like a year and a half," she told the class.
Wednesday morning her class had about 25 students. In spring, Hiatt said, she only had about five students per period in each classroom.
"It's good to see people," said the piano accompanist Isaiah Morfin. "Music is a great way to connect people."
Many students were eager to see so many faces again.
"I'm feeling really excited, and I'm glad to be back," sophomore Adrian Avila said after returning from his English class. "It kind of gives me a feeling of how it was back then, before COVID. It feels a little normal. Zoom wasn't really fun."
Students said they struggled with their classes and grades while in distance learning. A new year with a traditional schedule would serve as an opportunity to bring their grades back up.
"I'm getting back on track," said junior Caitlyn Riggens.
Most of the nerves that students had were about easing back into the social aspect of school. Students said they felt safe at school.
Carissa Perez came to school wearing two masks, because she was concerned about COVID, but she said she was feeling comfortable seeing that everyone was masked up — even when they were outside.
But some parents dropping off their students expressed concern about rising COVID rates.
Martha Flores said her sophomore and junior were happy to return to Mira Monte, but they also don't want to pass COVID on to their grandfather.
Her family is working to take all the precautions they can; everyone is vaccinated except the youngest, who is ineligible. Flores told her children to keep their masks on at all times at school, unless they're drinking or eating. Flores doesn't want her kids to stay at home and get depressed, but she's still "skeptical and worried" about whether sending them to school is a safe decision.
"I would rather have them at home," she said.
Carolina Esquivel had concerns as she dropped off her freshman daughter on Wednesday. Some of them weren't COVID-related. She was denied a transfer to South High and she hoped Mira Monte would be a good school for her daughter. But she also hoped that students would stay vigilant about mask wearing.
"I'm worried about COVID, because they are young and they don't think too much about using the mask — but they need to use it," Esquivel said. "I see they are using it now, but I don't know if they keep it on all the time."