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The second first day of school: La Jolla public schools welcome majority of their students back to campuses

Staff members, signs and a mascot welcome Muirlands Middle School students back to onsite learning April 12.
Staff members, signs and a mascot welcome Muirlands Middle School students back to onsite instruction April 12 after more than a year of distance learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

After over a year of distance learning and more than seven months into the current school year, La Jolla’s five public schools in the San Diego Unified School District welcomed most of their students back to campus April 12 as the district reopened from closures triggered by COVID-19.

All the La Jolla schools saw much of their student populations arrive with a long list of drop-off/pickup and other health and safety guidelines to follow.

The schools had been closed to most students since mid-March 2020, with small numbers identified as struggling invited for appointment-based learning on campuses since October as part of the district’s Phase 1 of reopening.

As the reopening date for all students neared, schools sent out surveys asking all families to choose whether they wanted to participate in a hybrid of onsite and online learning or to stay entirely online at home.

“We’re on track” to reopen April 12, San Diego Unified School District Area 5 Superintendent Mitzi Merino told the La Jolla Cluster Association during its March 18 meeting, referring to the district’s plan to have students return to campuses for up to four days a week of in-person instruction in a hybrid model with online learning.

At La Jolla High School — which had 1,338 students enrolled as of Feb. 21 — 56 percent of families chose the onsite option. Those students were split into two groups — by last name — to attend classes in person two days a week, Principal Chuck Podhorsky said. One group goes to campus Mondays and Tuesdays, the other on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Richard Babcock, who teaches computer science to all grades in various classes at LJHS, said the first day back “was challenging and exciting. It was great to have students back in the classroom and actually interact with those students.”

“Half the class is still on Zoom, so to tailor the work for both groups has been somewhat difficult,” he said. “But I am excited to be back and I am having fun in the classroom.”

Christy Littlemore, whose son is a freshman at LJHS, said she is “thrilled to be headed into a hybrid model of school opening that is safe for everyone and provided families the choice to attend in person or continue online.”

Littlemore’s son participated in the Phase 1 of reopening and “his time will actually decrease on campus with Phase 2,” she said. However, she feels the amount of time on campus is less important than the opportunities for students to socialize and for getting “more teachers in classrooms.”

Before the April 12 return, the school sent out a lot of communication about safety precautions, including requirements for face masks, hand sanitization and the daily districtwide use of the website ClearPass (or a paper version) to survey for coronavirus symptoms before students are admitted to campus.

“I am extremely happy with how the La Jolla schools have been handling the return to school and making safety a priority,” Littlemore said.

Similar guidelines were communicated to families at Muirlands Middle School. Along with masks and hand sanitizer, students are asked to bring to school a fully charged laptop (provided by the district), headphones and a water bottle.

Jackets also are recommended, as windows and doors will be left open to provide maximum ventilation.

Muirlands Principal Jeff Luna said 78 percent of the school’s 752 students opted for the onsite hybrid model, and students are attending four days a week, Mondays through Thursdays.

“Our staff is looking forward to supporting the learning of all our students, both those joining us on campus and those that choose to remain in the online format,” Luna said. “We are working hard and very excited for the remainder of our school year,” which ends June 15.

Anna De Angelis, who has a daughter in eighth grade at Muirlands and another in 10th grade at LJHS, said she and her husband allowed their children to choose which learning mode they wanted. The eighth-grader chose to return to campus, while the sophomore chose to stay home.

The younger daughter “is aware that it will not be easy, but she has missed school very much,” De Angelis said.

“Our morning routine will need to be adjusted, the drive to and from school will cut into some of the activities that have been added to her day at home. ... My hope is that this will be worth the effort for my daughter,” she said.

Students return to Bird Rock Elementary School on April 12. Most of them hadn't been inside a classroom since March 2020.
Students return to Bird Rock Elementary School on April 12. Most of them hadn’t been inside a classroom since March 2020.
(Courtesy)

Bird Rock Elementary School Principal Andi Frost said 90 percent of her school’s 373 students returned for onsite learning. “We are thrilled to be welcoming back so many,” she said.

Students will be on campus four days a week, Mondays through Thursdays.

“These last weeks have been weeks of preparation,” Frost said. “Our first week back will be a week of excitement, nerves and minor hiccups. We will all learn a lot. Let’s enjoy our new journey together.”

Bird Rock Elementary School students get a big welcome to the campus April 12.
Bird Rock Elementary School students get a big welcome to the campus April 12 following the long coronavirus-related shutdown.
(Pearl Preis)

Jennifer Beverage, who has a third-grader at Bird Rock and a seventh-grader at Muirlands, said the return to campus caused “quite a bit of anticipation, anxiety and excitement at our house. I am sure there will also be a bit of frustration and overwhelm as the kids manage all the new routines and requirements for safety on campus. … But generally my kids are excited to get back to on-campus learning with their teachers and their friends.”

At Torrey Pines Elementary, where enrollment is 458, Principal Nona Richard said 82 percent of families chose to return for in-person learning, which is being offered Mondays through Thursdays.

“It’s a mix of overwhelmed and excited people around here,” Richard said. “We mostly just [couldn’t] wait for our kids to be back!”

Thu Le Leon, a parent of two children at Torrey Pines Elementary and one at Muirlands, said: “Torrey Pines Elementary and Muirlands administration, staff and teachers have done a wonderful job engaging our kids over the past year with online learning and have worked really hard to make the path back to school possible. We are so blessed to be a part of this community.”

Tania Rivera, who has two children attending TPES, said she sent her kids back to campus “knowing that most people around us are already vaccinated [for COVID-19], and learning about all the measures taken by our school district, we are confident that going back to school will be a great success.”

Rivera, whose younger child is in transitional kindergarten and saw his teacher and classmates in person for the first time April 12, said both her children “are super excited to go back.”

Signs at La Jolla Elementary School direct different grade levels to different entry points.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

At La Jolla Elementary School, where 92 percent of the 433 students opted for the onsite/online hybrid program and will be going to campus Mondays through Thursdays, signs were placed at various entry points to limit crowds at any one gate.

“We are absolutely thrilled to have so many of our students returning to campus,” said La Jolla Elementary Principal Stephanie Hasselbrink.

Mary Cantonis, parent of a third-grader at LJES, said: “The excitement in my daughter about returning to school is visible and wonderful. I can see a light shining in her that has been dimmed for quite some time. Academically, I do not think she was disadvantaged from online learning, but socially it has taken a toll.

“I’m glad I can tell my daughter, ‘See, we always get to the other side. The rainbow is always waiting.’” ◆