The first day of school always comes with a few uncertainties. Dropoff is often a confused tangle of cars. Students scramble to find new classrooms. If there’s a dress code, more than a few students are likely to wear something that doesn’t quite cut it. This school year — our second during a pandemic now haunted by the Delta variant — even more concerns were added to those back-to-school lists. Families wondered what in-person classes will look like as schools continue to shore up COVID-19 protocols to keep their students, faculty and staff healthy and safe.
“First of all, students and employees will be wearing masks the entire time they’re on campus,” says Joe Martinez, principal at Carpenter Community Charter School in Studio City. The only time masks will be removed is when students or staff are eating or drinking. Martinez says Carpenter Community Charter administrators are making the most of outdoor time. “We have an open-air pavilion where students have traditionally eaten outside,” he says, “but we [added] an additional lunch to cut down on the number of kids sharing tables.”
Pivoting to follow local and state protocols and mask-wearing per the recommendations for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is only the beginning when it comes to safety considerations. Dr. Smita Malhotra, medical director of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), says, “We have some of the highest safety precautions in the nation.” LAUSD classrooms added upgraded air filtration systems, increased custodial staff and daily online health checks through Daily Pass, the health check app built specifically for the district. “You pick the school that you’re going to and then it goes through a series of health questions,” Malhotra explains. After a family fills in their student’s information, the program generates a QR Code that schools scan at their front gates. “If they’re not able to do this before they arrive, then we do the health screening questions when they do,” Martinez says.
If a student feels ill while on an LAUSD campus, they can see a campus nurse. If a school nurse is not available, Malhotra says, “There’s always a way to contact one in our district.”
For Highland Hall Waldorf School in Northridge, student temperature checks is one proven safety measure school staff members are ticking off their morning checklist. Highland Hall is also continuing best practices that include social distancing and mask wearing. Cara Lisco, Highland Hall’s director of advancement and operations, says employing all their available resources has helped this independent school pivot quickly while maintaining a safe learning environment. “We have both the indoor and the outdoor classrooms for all of our grades, so are able to respond to whatever L.A. County requires of us,” Lisco says.
Elizabeth Adams, principal of Valley Charter School in Van Nuys, has a thorough safety program that includes health screenings, temperature checks, masking and changing up playground time. “We have different areas on the field, so there will be a rotation each week,” Adams says. This way, the school can keep track of which children are playing together while also allowing freedom for a playtime filled with fun.
Carl Sabatino, head of school at Bridges Academy in Studio City, has vigorous safety precautions. Spreading out drop-off times, using clear plastic dividers to improve distancing and mask-wearing are all part of the plan. Sabatino says a big concern is keeping their younger, unvaccinated students safe. “The younger ones are going to cohort in their own building,” he says. “They’re on their own floor and have exits outside so they don’t have to be in a hallway.” Bridges Academy is also performing COVID-19 testing on their students regularly.
LAUSD is also supporting testing for its student population. Interim Superintendent Megan K. Reilly released a statement letting students and employees know that returning to in-person class will require a baseline test and then ongoing weekly testing. And Hilda Ramirez Horvath, manager of communications for the Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) says COVID-19 testing is an active part of their protocols. “We have a pretty robust testing program to promptly identify cases and clusters and outbreaks,” she says.
Horvath says of the school year, “It’s time to reset, re-engage and reignite.” PUSD’s key safety strategies include promoting vaccinations and the consistent use of masks. PUSD has multiple layers of safety practices in place, including physical distancing, frequent hand washing, continual cleaning and disinfection and using hospital-grade air purifiers/upgraded air filters in classrooms. Along with aiming to keep its student body healthy, PUSD is taking a whole-person approach. “We’re preparing students for the future by inspiring a joy of learning and supporting their mental health as they return to campus,” Horvath says.
Going back to campus after many months of remote or hybrid learning can certainly be the cause for some jitters. Jason Bolton, Ph.D., vice president of Community Partnerships & Admission of The Help Group, reminds us that kids are out of practice with usual school routines. “Families need to engage their students in a discussion about what this transition is going to look like,” he says. “Talking about all this also projects confidence that we’re going to get through this together [by] leaning on each other.”
Despite these new kind of back-to-school jitters, this new school year unpacks some excitement, too. Lisco says of Highland Hall, “The Waldorf community has a very vibrant community life and our parents are very excited to re-engage.” Bolton echoes this excitement. “Teachers got into this profession to be with their students. People are feeling challenged and excited at the same time.” And Martinez relates that during a recent Carpenter Community Charter town hall meeting, “The response from parents was tremendous.”
While students missed out on some invaluable classroom lessons last year, there are a few life lessons we can take with us. “What our children learned during this last year was resiliency, and that’s a skill that’s going to last them a lifetime,” Malhotra says.
Principal Adams of Valley Charter explains how video conferencing options made school meetings and parent-teacher conferences more accessible for working parents. “It’s much easier for them to participate,” Adams says. All good discoveries to pack in our backpacks moving forward.
With familiar and brand-new COVID-19 precautions put into place, school officials, like many families, are hopeful for a successful 2021-22 school year. “We are prepared. We put a lot of thought, time and effort into effective health and safety protocols last year, which we will use again this year,” Hillary Larsen, marketing and communications director of Le Lycée Français de Los Angeles, says. Indeed, school officials whose schools opened even on a hybrid schedule for part of last school year feel like it laid the foundation to help this year’s necessary protocols run smoother.
Going back to the classroom has a sense of getting back to normal, Malhotra, says, “But we’re also trying to go back…better. So, we’re keeping our health and safety as a top priority and prioritizing the socio-emotional well-being of our students.”
Tonilyn Hornung is an author and freelance writer.