Staff and students at Aromas-San Juan Unified School District returned to school on April 12 for three and a half-hour school days.
When they were polled by the school district, 60% of parents and 70% of students said they wished to reopen schools, according to Superintendent Michele Huntoon.
Huntoon said she sympathized with everyone involved.
“It’s a new world, not knowing what it’s gonna look like coming back to school,” she said. “Frankly none of us really know exactly what it’s gonna look like until the day that we start back up.”
Fourth grader Nathan Bautista told BenitoLink that, “It’s nice to be back at school.” Third grade student Nirel Lopez said, “Wearing a mask is not my favorite thing, but it’s just for safety.” Second grade teacher Georgina Ramos said that several of her students shared Lopez’s opinion.
The effects of purely distant learning on everyone’s “social-emotional wellbeing,” of “not having that personal contact, [nor] being in the classroom with your students,” had to be remedied by personal contact, Ramos said.
Huntoon and her staff predicted that the biggest challenge would be implementing the logistics and protocols for staying open during the pandemic.
“One challenge with kids naturally is they like to huddle together and talk and chat, they’re usually pretty friendly, but we have to maintain the social distance,” said Jose Ruben Garcia, teacher and counselor to migrant students. “So just friendly reminders, and we’ll expect the best.”
Huntoon agreed. “Once we get that down after the first couple of days, they’ll ease back into learning in the classroom.”
Not all students are returning however, with about half of the 1,000 students enrolled in the district choosing to remain off-campus and attending classes remotely through a camera in the classroom, she said. Most classes are broken up into two cohorts— one cohort attends in-person classes on Mondays and Tuesdays, the other on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Some small classes with 12 or fewer students attend four days of the week.
“Our students at home are learning synchronously, at the exact same moment, with our students who are at school,” said San Juan School Principal Elizabeth Cord, as she was checking students’ temperatures and welcoming them back to school on April 12. “We expect their experience to be very similar, academically.”
Garcia secured wi-fi and computers for migrant students to use during the shutdown and helped run an after-school program for kids in grades 1-6.
“It went, for the most part, pretty well, though we didn’t have a high number of kids in it,” he said.
Huntoon praised the teachers and staff for their response to quick changes.
“I have to give a lot of kudos to our teachers—able to turn on a dime to provide that instruction in a really thought-out manner. It took some time to get their groove, but they’ve done a fantastic job,” Huntoon said. “I think [Zoom learning] has provided an opportunity for parents to see what teachers do in the classroom, and I think it has provided an opportunity for our teachers to learn more about technology.” Teachers came back to school the week of March 31 to put their classrooms together and all school employees who wanted vaccines have received them.
New protocols at school include social distancing, masks, daily health screenings and hand-washing. During the gap year, custodial staff worked on projects around campus, such as installing solar panels and distance learning technology. Cafeteria workers have been providing meals since March 16, 2020, including during holidays and vacations, as part of a federal Seamless Summer program.
The students “remember their campus very differently than what you see here today,” Huntoon said. “Some of our students, our kindergarten students, have never been on campus, and they’re learning a lot. It’s a different world for everyone.”
Still, continuity helps, according to eighth grade math and science teacher David McMullen.
“As a teacher, when you get to work with the same kids two years in a row, it’s awesome because you get to just keep building on what you’ve learned and can help them continue to grow,” he said.
Second-grade teacher Ramos looks forward to tutoring her students in the material that causes them to struggle.
“I do as much as I can online, but when you’re not there to keep an eye and check in, and they don’t show you what they’re doing or turn their camera on, it’s very difficult,” she said.
As she was walking around her classroom on the first day, Ramos focused “more on children in person, and I didn’t get a lot of response from my students on distance learning.” Still, she said she was grateful to learn more about Zoom and Google Classroom.
Most everyone felt that staff and students were glad to return to school. “Today it seemed like the kids that were back were excited to be back,” McMullen said. “Even though they had a mask on, you could see the smile behind the mask.”
San Juan principal Cord said, “We get into this kind of work because we love the energy of being around kids, and we have missed them.”
San Juan Bautista Mayor Leslie Jordan, who volunteered to check the children’s temperatures that morning, agreed.
“Everybody has been isolated for so long, I think this is a great thing. I think for a moment everybody’s gonna have to get used to each other again, and get down to learning,” she said.
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