School reopening

SAN DIEGO, CA - APRIL 12: Students at Perkins K-8 put their backpacks on hooks before entering class on the first day of school. (Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

SAN DIEGO – Perkins K-8 School Principal Fernando Hernandez was so nervous early Monday that he didn't eat breakfast.

It was the first day back to in-person school for students at Perkins and hundreds of other schools in San Diego Unified — one year and a month since the pandemic began. In recent weeks Hernandez and his staff have been mapping out safety measures and planning for every possible contingency they could imagine.

"It's great to see all of you," Hernandez said as he visited a classroom of third-graders at the start of the school day. "How many of you are nervous?"

All but two of the 15 masked and socially-distanced kids raised their hands.

"Yeah, it's normal to be nervous ... I'm nervous too," Hernandez said. "Do you feel butterflies in your stomach? It's been over a year since we've been in school.

"Boys and girls, it's gonna be good today. It's not gonna be the same as before … but it's going to get better, okay?"

By mid-morning, Hernandez said he was not so much nervous as excited about seeing kids after months of seeing empty lunch tables, empty classrooms and an empty playground.

Walking around campus, he greeted any student who passed his way, saying "It's good to see you," and "I missed you so much."

In an interview Hernandez said, "It's a relief that we're finally moving back to normality, because our students have suffered a lot."

The pandemic hit Perkins hard. The school of more than 400 students is in Barrio Logan in southeastern San Diego, a former epicenter of COVID exposure in the region.

Even before the pandemic began, Perkins was no stranger to struggle, with 95 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals, a measure of poverty, and more than a third qualifying as homeless.

Several Perkins students lost family members, including parents, to COVID, Hernandez said. Some students went weeks without logging in to distance learning because a parent was hospitalized with COVID.

Other students did distance learning at a table shared with two or three siblings in a small apartment. Often parents were working outside the home, so several kids didn't have an adult to supervise them or push them to do school work, he said.

As a result many Perkins students show signs of learning loss, Hernandez said. Some kindergarteners and first-graders are not on track to meeting reading goals by the end of the school year.

Hernandez and his staff did what they could, including taking backpacks full of school supplies to kids' homes, and collecting clothing, food and gift cards for students' family members who had lost work or been hospitalized.

With school open again, teachers will work to catch students up academically while also helping them recover from emotional trauma, Hernandez said.

For academics, Hernandez has focused on getting students to read more books. And for students' mental health, teachers will help students identify their feelings and use coping strategies, he said.

"I told (teachers) you're gonna need to balance the academics also with the social-emotional," Hernandez said. "We're gonna need to establish routines and make it feel like a warm, welcoming, family-like environment, a sanctuary for our students."

The campus was bustling Monday the hour before school began at 9 a.m. Perkins staff were helping students find their teachers and passing out symptom check forms to families, which they needed to fill out for their kids to enter campus.

Teachers spent part of the morning going over safety rules, pointing out marks on lunch benches where students need to sit and reminding them to wash their hands.

Meanwhile parents dropping off young children took photos on cell phones and waved at their kids through the school gate.

Cesar Rodriguez, who stood outside the school, said he initially wasn't sure whether he should bring his two sons back to school during the pandemic, but the safety measures and reassurances from teachers helped make up his mind.

He said he works at a bank and had been relying on their grandmother, who doesn't speak English and can't help them with distance learning, to watch them.

"The learning experience wasn't as good as in the classroom," Rodriguez said.

Another parent, Diana Diaz, watched her 5-year-old son as he waited to go to kindergarten class. He has been wanting to go to school for a long time, she said. Monday was his first day of in-person school ever.

"I'm nervous with everything going on, but I'm excited for him," she said. "I just hope he has a good time ... He's been stuck at home for such a long time. It's going to be good for him to socialize."

Not only are educators charged with keeping students and staff safe, now they must teach in a way they never have before: teaching students who are attending in-person and students Zooming in from home at the same time.

About 55 percent of Perkins' students came back to school Monday, and the other 45 percent chose to stay home in distance learning. Hernandez said several Perkins families have multi-generational households with as many as 10 family members, including people who are elderly and at-risk, so some families didn't want to risk their kids bringing COVID home from school.

A peek into several classrooms at Perkins showed the various ways teachers were approaching hybrid learning.

In some classrooms, students were wearing headphones and using Zoom on their computers, watching and listening as their teacher — who was in the room with them — gave a lesson to them and the students who were Zooming in from home.

Other teachers used web cameras to broadcast their class to students learning from home and displayed the Zoom screen on their classroom digital whiteboard, so that in-person students could see the Zoom students' faces.

The teachers union agreement with the school district allows teachers flexibility in how their classroom is run.

The challenge, Hernandez said, is making sure no student learning from home feels left out. On Friday teachers will meet to discuss what worked with hybrid teaching and what didn't, he said.

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