Los Alamitos Unified officially welcomed students and staff back to its six elementary campuses using its reopening waiver Tuesday morning.
We went to one of those campuses, Lee Elementary, to observe the promised safety protocols in effect.
It was not your typical back-to-school morning. Parents were not allowed to walk their kids – even the young ones – to their classrooms, and students’ temperatures were taken before going inside.
According to the district’s application for a reopening waiver, Lee Elementary expected about 570 students to come back to campus for in-person learning.
Because the district is reopening first in a “hybrid” model, about half of the students were assigned to “Cohort A,” which was on campus in the morning. The other half were assigned to “Cohort B,” which arrived in the afternoon.
At Lee, there were three gates: one in the front of the school for kindergarteners and students with last names starting with A-C, one for students whose names started with D-Mc, and another for the remaining kids. Outside of each of the gates, there were pink circles painted on the concrete to help space kids out.
Most – but not all – of the people we saw were wearing masks. Third graders and older, as well as all adults, are supposed to wear masks while on campus.
Good morning from Los Alamitos Unified’s Lee Elementary! Today is the first day of “hybrid” school here. About 570 students are expected to come back to campus today, in two groups. Here are some of the safety measures they had in place for the morning group’s drop off pic.twitter.com/mTIfsWVq7T
— Carla Javier (@carlamjavier) September 8, 2020
Parent Christopher Gavieres dropped off his son, a kindergartener, in the morning cohort.
“You just wait in line, and then one of the attendants will take your child to class personally, which is nice,” Gavieres said. “It feels totally safe.”
A similar situation played out around the corner at another one of the district’s other schools, Rossmoor Elementary, said Matt Oelschlager, parent of a fifth-grader and a second-grader.
“The thing that stood out to me was going to give them goodbye kisses with masks on,” Oelschlager said. “Everything about it was different, you know?”
Oelschlager said it was a “big” decision deciding whether to send his kids back for in-person learning. Ultimately, he said he and his wife believe going back will be better for their kids’ mental health, and they were comforted by the district’s emphasis on mask-wearing.
Oeschlager had a lot of questions for his kids when he picked them up.
“We were like, ‘Okay, kids, take note of what’s happening in your class. We want full reports on … how many the kids are actually gonna wear masks and just kind of what the procedures are.”
The kids “had big smiles when we picked them up and were so happy to be back in school,” he added. Once they got back home, they focused on their remote assignments.
Teachers got a short break between dismissing the first cohort and welcoming the second one. Stacy Schmitz, who teaches transitional kindergarten at Weaver Elementary and is president of the Los Alamitos Education Association, took a few moments from her break for a phone interview
Before her students entered her classroom, she said, they placed their backpacks on hooks outside, got their temperatures checked, and washed their hands, one at a time.
Normally, her students would sit on the carpet all together. But at least for now, they sat one student per desk instead. On each desk was a tub of personal supplies, like pencils, scissors, crayons, and a glue stick, to help minimize sharing.
“The part that I had the most concern about was how would I comfort these children as they come into school, maybe apprehensive to leave their parents,” Schmitz explained. “And, you know, we’re supposed to keep our distance also.”
Despite all the changes, one familiar routine persisted: starting the day by reading the childhood classic “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.”
She said she tried to use reassuring words and eye contact to connect with her students despite the six feet of distance between them. She said her whole morning cohort – about a dozen kids – all wore masks.
“The reality of 4- and 5-year-olds [is that they] pretty much want to follow the directions for the most part,” Schmitz said. “So I felt very comfortable. And with that piece of it – knowing that, they would follow directions, really I couldn’t have asked for a smoother morning.”
When the district requested a reopening waiver last month, 62% of teachers surveyed said they supported the district’s application. Their application was approved by county and state public health officials.
Not all Los Alamitos Unified students went back to school in person, though.
The district gave parents the option for signing up for a year of “LosAl@Home,” a 100% distance learning program, which started last week. We reached out to Superintendent Andrew Pulver multiple times for comment on the reopening, but did not hear back. Last month, he told us that about a fifth of the district had opted into the online-only option.
Almost 700 have signed an online petition asking the district to reconsider its reopening plan.
We’d like to hear parents, teachers, and staff about your experiences with the school reopenings. You can reach out to me – reporter Carla Javier – by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
READ OUR COVERAGE OF THE REOPENING OF SCHOOLS: