For San Juan Bautista, the recent return of fourth-grade students coming to the state park and the mission is as welcome a sight to the local shops and restaurants as the returning swallows are to San Juan Capistrano.
Over 45,000 students a year visited the park in pre-pandemic times and with field trips being scheduled again after an almost 19-month absence, the City of History has taken a big step toward financial stability.
“This town relies on the fourth graders,” said Kammie Osborn, owner of Jan’s Rock Shop. “When they stopped coming, it did hurt a lot of the businesses and certainly my store. We are still trying to figure it out but I think the kids being gone cost me about 20% of my business.”
The field trips came to a halt on March 17, 2020, when COVID-19 forced the closure of tourist locations to the public.
With most restrictions lifted, park interpreter Marcos Vizcaino sees the school buses that have been arriving since mid-October as a sign that things are getting back to normal.
“I was ecstatic that we could begin booking field trips again,” he said. “It was good for everyone’s sanity and for the park’s well-being. Our purpose is to reach out to kids and have them discover California history with all of our park buildings and the unique treasures we have out here. We can offer more in person than we can online.”
Teacher Rosie Shaffer of Valley Christian Elementary School, brought three fourth-grade classes, around 70 students, to the state park on Nov. 4.
“There is nothing that beats being here in person,” she said. “The kids are very excited to be here to see the mission and the park and we will be exploring all the cool historical things that San Juan Bautista has to offer.”
Having led tours for the fourth graders for several years, Vizcaino has noticed a few differences in the returning students this time around.
“Some of them are coming by cars rather than the buses to maintain smaller groups,” he said. “And a lot of the kids are wearing masks but still going around doing all their normal kids’ stuff. They seem very comfortable in them, adapting to this post-pandemic world.”
An important side benefit to the students returning is the pocket change they spend at the local stores and eateries on Third Street, as well as at the state park and mission.
“With the kids coming back, we are generating income through admission charges,” Vizcaino said. “And our history association’s gift shop at the park entrance has seen a huge boost in sales with people buying candy, books and gifts. And, of course, for the kids, going into town is their treat at the end of their trip.”
Two of the favorite stops are Jan’s Rock Shop, which in pre-COVID times would have geological demonstrations for the students, and Margot’s Ice Cream Parlor, usually the last stop before going back to the school buses.
“The children returning means excitement for the local economy,” said Margot Tankersley, owner of Margot’s. “We will get kids counting their change to get ice cream like they have raided their piggy banks for the trip. We will give them back their change, say 25 cents, and they will ask, ‘What can we get for 25 cents?’”
Tankersley said that, prior to COVID, the students accounted for a quarter to a third of her annual income. But beyond the money they spend on their trips, the students become self-appointed ambassadors for the town.
“The kids on the field trips don’t necessarily go into every shop but they get a taste of the town,” she said. “They go home and tell their parents that San Juan Bautista is awesome—a lot of parents tell me their child had visited and wanted to come back. So it introduces new tourists to the town who come and browse the shops and maybe stay to get something to eat.”
With the streets busy again with excited children, there is more than a hint of better days to come for the town.
“A lot of our businesses have been struggling,” said Tankersley, “and any indication that things are improving is welcome.”
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