Local schools return to face-to-face learning, embracing a new normal

Claremont High School senior Kellin Olsen stands next to the code students must scan to fill out their COVID-19 symptom check form before entering campus. The Claremont Unified School District reopened for in-person instruction April 12. / photo by Alondra Campos
Claremont High School senior Kellin Olsen stands next to the code students must scan to fill out their COVID-19 symptom check form before entering campus. The Claremont Unified School District reopened for in-person instruction April 12. / photo by Alondra Campos

Alondra Campos
Editorial Director

Kellin Olsen, a senior at Claremont High School, spent the majority of his final year of high school at home in his pajamas, rarely leaving the house, and attending school online. 

But with Los Angeles county’s push  – supported by state and federal governments – to get students back to in-person school after a year of online learning, Claremont High reopened on April 12 for students’ in-person education two days a week. 

On Monday, CHS students will be back four days a week. They will follow their elementary school counterparts who this week returned to four days of in-person instruction.  

Claremont schools have joined schools across Los Angeles County and the state with their so-called safe return plans, which include a variety of face-to-face, hybrid and online options, bolstered by extensive planning, facilities upgrades, safety protocols and state and federal funding and incentives. These efforts were also aided by state and national vaccination campaigns and decreasing COVID rates. 

Now Olsen finds himself looking for an outfit to look presentable from head to toe, not just from his shoulders up as for the past year on Zoom. 

He grabs his backpack, mask, and checks off “no” on the COVID-19 symptom check form before stepping onto the campus he’d missed for more than a year.  

As he walked onto campus his first day back a few weeks ago – hoping for one last taste of a normal senior year – he said he was a little shocked to see fewer than 10 people in some of his classes, that normally have as many as 35. The majority of his classmates elected to finish out the year remotely. 

“I mean, it is what it is,” Olsen said. “I really wanted a little bit of the in-person experience before I graduate and having extracurricular activities in person, like our Comedy Sports team, was probably the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed advancing school districts $2 billion if they submitted a safe return plan by Feb. 1, with the initial hopes of actually returning to in-person classes by mid-February. The plan granted schools a one-time payment of $450 per student to districts that offered in-person instruction, while still offering distance learning as an option. 

Newsom ended up signing a $6.6 billion package on March 5 to fund safety measures for in-person instruction, according to a March news release from the governor’s office. Of that money, $2 billion went toward funding safety measures for in-person instruction and $4.6 billion was used to fund expanded learning opportunities. 

Since last week, anyone age 12 and up is now eligible for COVID-19 vaccines with a parent’s consent, but most kids who returned to school last month had not yet been vaccinated.  

Claremont Unified School District’s plan, implemented April 12 for elementary students and April 19 for high school students, called for masks and social distancing with some exceptions, though as guidance from the County Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have changed, the district has started updating guidelines. 

Recent relaxed social distancing guidelines were part of the impetus for the district’s plan to increase contact days.

“Things are still changing,” Claremont Unified School District superintendent Julie Olesniewicz told families at a community meeting last month. “It is a constant change as everybody knows, and we continue to pivot and work based on the guidance we get from the County.

Among the changes, classrooms were redesigned to accommodate social distancing, AC and heating systems were upgraded with filters to increase the circulation of fresh air in classrooms, and sanitation was revamped including touchless water fountains and hand-sanitizing stations.  

“We’ve placed new benches, picnic tables, and concrete pads to encourage … an outdoor learning environment as much as possible,” said Lisa Shoemaker, assistant superintendent of Claremont Unified School District. “We’re also providing microphones for teachers who feel vocal projection may be an issue due to the face mask.”

Students are required to conduct symptom screenings before arriving at school campuses that include checking for fever, muscle or body aches, cough or shortness of breath, and a new loss of taste or smell. 

High school students are required to fill out a questionnaire before coming to school that asks them to confirm or deny any COVID-19 symptoms. 

Although school districts are not able to mandate vaccinations for their employees, the majority of Claremont faculty and staff has been vaccinated, and the schools have offered some vaccination clinics for students old enough to get the vaccine. 

Additionally, specific COVID-19 exposure protocols, and contact tracing are in place, including testing for students or staff members who may have been exposed to the virus. 

“Any student with symptoms of COVID-19 while on campus will be isolated in our designated isolation areas at each school site,” said Alicia King, El Roble Intermediate School nurse. 

Any positive cases will trigger a 10 day of isolation, contact tracing and a report to the Los Angeles County Health Department. 

“We already have letters drafted and ready to send out to inform parents and guardians if there is a positive COVID-19 case on campus,” King said

On March 24, Claremont High School Principal Brett O’Connor sent out a mass email to Claremont High parents about a confirmed COVID-19 case for one of the high school’s athletes, who went back to practice several weeks before schools reopened for classes. According to the email, parents of athletes and students that were potentially exposed to the virus were notified and the athlete’s name was reported to the Los Angeles Department of Public Health.  

No such notifications have been sent to Claremont High School parents since students returned to classrooms last month. 

Bonita High School placed signs at entrances to campus as reminders to students to always wear masks, maintain social distancing, and wash or sanitize hands frequently. The Bonita Unified School District reopened to in-person instruction two days per week April 12, and moved to four days per week May 10. / photo by Alondra Campos
Bonita High School placed signs at entrances to campus as reminders to students to always wear masks, maintain social distancing, and wash or sanitize hands frequently. The Bonita Unified School District reopened to in-person instruction two days per week April 12, and moved to four days per week May 10. / photo by Alondra Campos

Bonita Unified School District’s COVID-19 safety plan initially consisted of two separate cohorts back on April 12, but welcomed all its students back, four days a week on May 10, according to the district website.  

Bonita’s COVID-19 safety plan is similar to Claremont’s in that it follows the Los Angeles County’s public health guidelines and requires face masks, social distancing, and has remodeled its classrooms to maintain five feet of distance between students. Students and employees are also expected to conduct daily symptom screenings before arriving on campus.

In the case of COVID-19 exposure on campus, Bonita has a four-person contact tracing team that is trained on the Los Angeles County Department of Public guidelines for isolation and quarantine for these individuals. 

Despite safety measures, many families chose to finish out the year online.  

Natalie Uster-Sanchez, president of the Parent Faculty Association at Claremont High School, said her Claremont High School 10th-grader was upset to arrive on campus for the first day back and find his friends were not there. 

“He is irritated that the socializing and fun part of school just isn’t happening right now,” Uster-Sanchez said.  

Though Uster-Sanchez  added that her son’s productivity level has increased ever since he returned to campus.

“The routine of getting up, getting ready, and leaving the house is definitely better than him taking class on his bed or the couch,” Uster-Sanchez said. “Now he can start his day in more of a real life way.”

Olsen also said he’s relieved to be back. 

“When I show up in person, I find that I am very productive and actually get stuff done,” Olsen said. “When I’m in a classroom, I can’t just click over to a new tab and tune out the professor.”

Katherine Njoten Ruchhoeft, whose son is a sophomore at Claremont High chose to have him finish out the school year online. 

“Our main concern was that students weren’t going to feel protected and there was going to be an interruption of their learning,”Njoten Ruchhoeft said. “With only seven weeks left, I feel like they are displacing our children.” 

Njoten Ruchhoeft’s son is also in Claremont High band, and he was excited to return to band practice several weeks before students returned to the regular classroom.

But when he did return for band practice, he felt unsafe, Njoten Ruchhoeft said.  

“My son attended practice for the first couple of days and said some students were not wearing their masks and they were going indoors to carry out their heavy instruments,” Njoten Ruchhoeft said. 

Additionally, Njoten Ruchhoeft said she is concerned about the virus’ variants and the many kids and families who are still not vaccinated.  

“While school is as important as it is, it’s not worth risking your life for it,” Njoten Ruchhoeft said.

John Bartelt and Linda Bartelt, professors of educational studies at the University of La Verne, emphasized the importance of in-person learning, but they said that the necessary safety protocols diminish the value of the in-person experience. 

“I heard someone describe it as a sitcom laugh track,” John Bartelt said. “We are laughing together alone. You go back with a mask, only half of the people in the classroom are there, and socially distanced. We’re together alone.” 

The Bartelts said their 9-year-old granddaughter, a fourth grader in the Bonita district, was not satisfied with her school environment when she returned.

“She has to wear a mask, is not allowed to eat, and only has a five minute break,” Linda Bartelt said. “A lot of these kids were hoping to have what they had before but it’s not exactly it.”

The Bartelts said they are unsure whether the decision to return to in-person classes was for socialization purposes or political purposes. 

“We need, crave, and desire normalcy, but that’s not what these students have returned to,” Linda Bartelt said.

Although she understands the need for some students to return to in-person classes, Njoten Ruchhoeft said she would have preferred for Claremont High to wait until fall to reopen. 

“I know the number of COVID-19 cases have dropped in recent weeks but the last thing we want is to raise those numbers again,” Njoten Ruchhoeft said. “All the progress we’ve made could be lost if we’re not cautious.”

Alondra Campos can be reached at alondra.campos@laverne.edu.

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