A Wave Of Excitement As Valley Schools Reopen But COVID Concerns Still Loom
The school bell is ringing, signaling the end of the first day back at school at Lowell Elementary near downtown Fresno. Parents gather just outside the gates of the campus, eagerly waiting to pick up their children. Some stand under the shade, while others wait in a line of cars. Slowly, students begin filing out of class.
The once-empty playground is now filled with kids and the bustle of parents and siblings arriving to pick their student out of the crowd.
Martha Samaniego is a teacher on special assignment. Today, she’s the crossing guard on duty. With a watchful eye, she maneuvers groups of students and families safely across the busy street.
“Felicity, how was your first day?” Samaniego asks a student as she helps her and her family cross the street. “Awesome! So glad to hear that.”
Samaniego says she’s relieved that kids are finally back on campus.
“This is our first day with students after being away for so long, so it’s been great,” she says as she scans the traffic on Poplar Avenue.
Malachi Gonzalez is a 6th grader at Lowell Elementary. He thinks this school year is going to be a lot better than the last.
“Yeah, I didn’t know some students’ names,” he says. “But now I do. I get to talk to a lot of people and a lot of my friends, yeah.”
“But I can, like, actually see the teacher telling us what to do and stuff. And she can just, like, see me.”
Janette Anaya is a 4th grade teacher at Lowell and this is her first official year teaching. She says it’s going to take some time to adjust to getting back into the classroom for everyone, including herself.
“They were just nervous, just as I was, you know. First year teacher coming into this beautiful profession,” she says. “Coming in with the mindset of what or how are my students going to feel? I won’t know until I get to know them and start socializing and communicating with one another.”
Sherielyn Minamin is a parent with a first and third grader attending Lowell. She says she’s taking a safety risk by allowing her children to return to school, but understands it’s a balance with their mental health needs.
“I am a little worried, of course, because the virus is not gone, never gone. It’s actually mutating,” she says.
She says she’s not relieved that schools are open again. “But it’s good for their mental health to be with children, to be in person,” she says.
While it’s exciting for kids to be back at school, many parents and teachers still have reservations about safety. At the beginning of this month, one rural district north of Bakersfield had to ask 70 students to quarantine after a handful of kids got COVID.
Students have been back for in-person instruction at Wasco Union Elementary School District since August 2. But within the first week of school, five kids tested positive out of 3,000 kids in the district.
Superintendent Kelly Richers says his district has been following federal, state and local guidelines for COVID 19. That includes requiring mask wearing at all times, except during lunch. When some kids became infected, Richers says the original lunch policy escalated the situation, causing them to send a class of 70 kids home.
That meant anyone who had potentially come in contact with the infected students, including peers in after-school programs.
But superintendent Richers is even more concerned about teachers and staffing if an outbreak should happen among adults.
“One, two, or three people not being able to show up at work is pretty much disastrous,’ he says.
Richers says there’s no staff to cover if teachers become infected. But a backup plan is in place.
“We have the ability to shift students from one teacher to another, we have the distance learning aspect we can incorporate if we need to,” Richers says.
But Richers says that by far, the biggest challenge for his district and others is adjusting to constant changes in federal and state guidelines and mandates.
“And so all we do at the local level is react. We have no control over these things that are happening,” he says.
The most recent change, a new state order was issued requiring that public and private K-12 school workers verify vaccination status or undergo weekly testing.