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After more than a year, thousands return to class in Santa Rosa

Thursday marked the single largest day of students returning to campuses across Sonoma County since the start of the pandemic.|

Just before 8 a.m. Thursday, three buses rolled down Vallejo Street in Santa Rosa and pulled up in front of Brook Hill Elementary School. Kids in alternating seats — there were only three students in the first full-sized bus — stepped onto the sidewalk to have their temperatures taken, their grade level confirmed and to have a colored sticker affixed to their clothing.

Once checked in, off they want to class for the first time in more than a year.

Thursday marked the single largest day of students returning to campuses across Sonoma County since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered nearly 175 schools on March 13, 2020. Santa Rosa City Schools, the county’s largest school district with approximately 5,000 elementary students and nearly 11,000 in secondary grades, began its return to in-person learning Thursday morning.

About 75% of elementary students throughout the district opted to return to campus, with the rest continuing to learn full-time from home, according to district officials. The students who chose in-person instruction are split into two groups, with half attending school on Mondays and Tuesdays and the second group attending in-person on Thursdays and Fridays. School starts at 8 a.m. and students are dismissed at 12:20 p.m.

“Today the start of school has gone beyond anything I could have expected in terms of how smooth things went,” Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Diann Kitamura said. “I think it was because there was so much preparation. We just wanted to make sure that anything that could possibly happen we had some sort of solution for.”

At Brook Hill, because of safety protocols, teachers and staff could not form the human tunnel that kids usually run through on the first day of school. And kids walked to recess with what one teacher described as a “bike length” between each body and were instructed to play within their marked zone on the playground. Drinking fountains were wrapped in black plastic and taped over — no sharing of faucets. On the west side of campus there was a white tent — it was the school’s mandated isolation room should anyone get sick.

But much looked the same as it would on a typical “first day.” Teachers went over rules and expectations — some of which had a familiar feel like “Raise your hand,” or “Please stay seated.” Others seemed different — kindergartners sitting behind plastic shields at their desks and kids eating snacks six feet apart.

“They told us the rules step by step so we wouldn’t have to make a lot of mistakes. But they said that mistakes happen and it’s OK,” sixth grader Vanessa Moreno said.

And in kindergarten there was still Play-Doh. In fifth grade there were laptops and headphones and password hiccups. And recess had bouncing balls and blacktop races and zips down the slide.

Kindergarten teacher Rebecca Lacefield had eight students in her class Thursday morning, but still more were live on Zoom. Lacefield volunteered to concurrently teach students in-person along with those in the alternate hybrid group, as well as kids who opted to remain in distance learning, all so that she could stay with her original class roster.

On Thursday morning Lacefield, wearing a T-shirt that read “Teach, Sanitize, Repeat,” moved between offering advice to one student struggling to put together her mini-Lego set to answering a question from a student who was at home but connected via Bluetooth in Lacefield’s ear.

“Is that Valerie?” she said to her remote student as she moved around the room.

“It was a smooth start,” Brook Hill principal Indy Monday said. “It was new for us. We have never opened a school during a pandemic so it was definitely new but we are up for the challenge and we did it.”

April Smotherman, mother of a first and fourth grader, acknowledged that she had some anxiety dropping her sons at school Thursday after a year of being in distance learning, and with the coronavirus still at substantial spread in Sonoma County. Her kids, were stoked to go back to school.

“They were excited,” she said. “They were more excited than I thought they’d be. I think I was more anxious than they were.”

Nathan Garcia had some of those parental worries, too. But his daughter, a sixth grader on campus, was ready to go Thursday morning.

“I was just wondering how clean the school was and stuff like that. She was happy to get back to school and see her friends again,” he said. “I feel like it’s really important for them to get back to school for socializing and other things.”

Smotherman credited Monday and her staff for putting some of her anxiety to rest with regular communication and explanatory videos about how the school day would be structured.

“Brook Hill has been really good,” she said.

Monday, who spent the morning taking kids’ temperatures and directing them to their assigned color groups, said the return to campus couldn’t come soon enough.

“I’m just feeling so ready to get some normalcy back,” she said. “We have done an excellent job with distance learning. My teachers and staff members are incredible. We have done great work, but our kids need to be back in school. They need to see each other in person.”

That was what Uriel Arriaga came for. The sixth grader said hanging out with his friends — finally — was a highlight of his day. Wearing a Lionel Messi T-shirt, he even got to play two-touch soccer at recess.

“I was not nervous. I was happy,” he said. “I was happy to see my friends again.”

For sixth grader Moreno the highlight after a year away was her arts and agriculture lesson in the school garden on the south side of campus.

“The best part of my day is when I was able to go with my class in the garden and with the art teacher,” Moreno said. “We did art and we were able to plant some seeds and plants.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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