Superintendents express excitement after first week back to school

Valley View Elementary School Principal Ardrella Hamilton welcomes back students as districts begin to allow cohorts of students back on campus. February 22, 2021. Bobby Block / The Signal.

After transitioning to a distance-learning model in March of last year, school districts across the Santa Clarita Valley welcomed back students nearly a year later this week.

As schools began reopening Monday with a number of modifications, school administrators were excited to see more students return. 

“It’s been fabulous having the students back on campus — it really fills your heart,” said Catherine Kawaguchi, superintendent with Sulphur Springs Union School District. “We appreciate the students being thoughtful and following safety protocols, and the parents, too.”

After a surge in COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles County led to schools pausing their reopening plans in January, cases dipped below the 25 cases per 100,000 residents threshold earlier this month, allowing for elementary schools to welcome back students with safety protocols.

Each school district was required to undergo a screening from Public Health to ensure health and safety measures were being taken to lessen the risk of community transmission for COVID-19. Each school must comply with social distancing and mask mandates, while also practicing good hygiene with frequent hand washing, which officials noted is easier to enforce now because children have been practicing the new measures for months.

“Kids are used to these COVID(-19) protocols now because they’re being practiced in public,” said Jeff Pelzel, Newhall School District superintendent. “These aren’t new things to them and so far we haven’t had any issues with students being noncompliant.”

Some schools are taking a creative approach to enforcing safety protocols, such students having “butterfly arms,” which Saugus Union School District Superintendent Colleen Hawkins said is when students stretch their arms out to mimic a butterfly wing to make sure social distancing is being practiced.

Hawkins added a portion of students are being introduced to their teachers and to the school settling for the first time.

“Since we closed, there’s a whole group of (transitional kindergarten) students who are coming onto a school campus for the first time,” Hawkins said. “But that leads to some challenges because parents want to be there to drop their kids off in the classroom for the first time — but because of protocols, we can’t have visitors on campus.”

There were of course, some logistical challenges school officials had to work around.

“Our challenge is that we are unable to bring more kids to school because of the limited number of kids that can ride on the bus,” said Castaic Union School District Superintendent Steve Doyle via email. “We have students that were unable to return because they don’t have transportation to school. We had to limit access to the bus to those special needs students that require transportation and students in our most rural areas.”

Doyle added once middle school students are able to return to campus the school district will need to have staggered start times since busses can only carry between five and 12 students depending on the size. “We are short one driver and the necessary funds to purchase more busses temporarily,” he added.

The school districts have adopted an a.m./p.m. model where students are beginning at different times throughout the day so classroom capacity follows the county’s guidelines.

The districts also had a staggered reopening based on grade level, which officials said helped make the process of bringing students back to campus easier. Parents were also given the option to opt-out of in-person instruction if they wished to keep their students home for the remainder of the school year.

“It was so interesting watching the kids and their parents come back,” Pelzel said. “Usually younger kids show emotion and are nervous, but this time they just showed excitement. It was the parents who were more emotional watching their kids come back to school again.”

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