Del Mar elementary school students return to campus
As students throughout San Diego County log onto Zoom classes, students at Del Mar Union schools started in-person Tuesday
Wearing backpacks and face masks, students at Ocean Air Elementary School arrived Tuesday, Sept. 8, for their first back-to-school session since campuses shut their doors in March.
“I’m nervous and happy,” said Alexa Quinones, 12, as she entered the campus to meet her sixth-grade teacher in person for the first time.
“She’s been excited and nervous, just to see her friends and get back to normal, or nearly normal,” said her father, Johnny Quinones.
Normal, however, looked different this fall. Students and their parents arrived wearing face masks, some decorated with superheroes or animal faces. They took photos with friends, but refrained from the hugs and high fives that typically mark the start of the school year. The back-to-school buzz had a hint of uncertainty, as parents and students familiarized themselves with new systems for drop-off and campus entry.
The Del Mar Union School District started the semester virtually two weeks ago, but received a county waiver to begin in-person learning after submitting a safety plan for on-campus instruction, Superintendent Holly McClurg said. The state cleared schools in San Diego County to offer in-person instruction starting Sept. 1, so the district proceeded as planned, and opened its eight elementary schools this week.
“We did plan for this, and having the COVID-19 count go down, and the county going off the watch list confirmed that it was the right decision to open,” she said. “Since schools closed we have planned to reopen. It has been an enormous undertaking...because we wanted to be able to reopen the minute we were able.”
The Del Mar Union School District is among the first public districts in San Diego County to reopen for in-person learning. Rancho Santa Fe School District, with just about 600 students, received a waiver to reopen its elementary school Aug. 24, and welcomed students to its middle school last week, on Sept. 1, according to the San Diego County Office of Education.
About 65 percent of Del Mar’s 4,000 students will be attending school in person full time, while an additional 35 percent are sticking with virtual learning, McClurg said. Unlike many other districts that have planned for hybrid or blended schedules, with students on campus part time once school reopens, Del Mar Union students will attend class from 8:15 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, with the exception of a slightly shortened day on Wednesdays.
Their school day will be structured somewhat differently. Class sizes are smaller, with just 16 students in kindergarten through third grade classes, and 18 students per teacher in fourth through sixth grade. Teachers conduct temperature checks of students as they arrive, and will work to enforce social-distancing guidelines in the classroom, and particularly at lunch, the only time of the day when kids can remove their masks.
Students must stay in cohorts with their immediate classmates, and cannot play with others before school or during breaks. Popup awnings set out on the school field formed a system of open-air classrooms, where students will spend part of their days.
Amid all the changes, Daisy Kim, 12, said she was somewhat apprehensive about her first day back on campus for sixth grade.
“I’m a little nervous,” she said. “Because all this is different. I’m seeing everyone again. It’s going to be weird.”
Her mother, Angela Kim, said she felt confident that the school is as prepared as it can be, given the circumstances, and flexible enough to shift gears if COVID-19 conditions require it.
“They have it under control,” she said, adding that “I feel like in a pandemic, you have to pivot when everything changes. I think everyone wishes there were answers to everything, but there isn’t.”
Despite the restrictions, many parents said they were happy to have their children back in school, and comfortable with the system of protections in place.
Hanna and John Toman dropped off their kindergartner for the first time, along with his third- and fourth-grade siblings. Although it was an unconventional first day of school, they said it was better than not having one.
“They’ve done a really good job, and are just very organized,” John Toman said. “I would rather have him start like this than not be in school at all.”
Principal Ryan Stanley said teachers and staff are likewise thrilled to have students back on campus after nearly six months away.
“We know what school is to the lives of our kids, and to see their smiling faces, seeing them meet their friends, we couldn’t be more excited,” he said.
Teachers and staff made the best of the COVID-19 precautions, adopting a playful approach to the new protocols. After the morning bell rang, teacher Erica Kufahl led her students to the classroom wearing a pink face covering printed with ice cream cones, and a T-shirt proclaiming, “Can’t mask the love for my fifth-graders.”
— Deborah Sullivan Brennan is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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