After entering distance learning as a third grader last spring, Guadalupe resident Angel Ramos' son returned to the classroom for the first time nearly a year and a half later as a fifth grader on the Guadalupe Union School District's first day of school Wednesday.

The approximately 1,000 students in the small district have been out of the classroom much longer than neighboring schools, after the district Board of Trustees opted to remain in distance learning for the entire 2020-21 school year as other schools returned in the spring. 

"I think as long as they stay open, a lot of kids will benefit. He’s not one to be taught on the computer," Ramos said, explaining the challenges her son faced in attending online school and receiving virtual speech therapy since March 2020.

Outside Kermit McKenzie Intermediate School Wednesday morning, students from fifth to eighth grade rushed straight to their first period while others waited to pick up their schedule, many wearing overwhelmed but excited looks on their masked faces. 

A similar scene played out down the road at Mary Buren Elementary School, where K-5 students stepped out from behind computer screens and into classroom chairs. 

Due to the pandemic, the junior high school has two incoming grades — fifth and sixth — that have never been on campus before, and a class of eighth graders who have never experienced rotating between classes, a schedule that usually begins in seventh grade. 

However, teachers and staff were waiting to celebrate their arrival with applause and music, giving warm welcomes and directing students where they needed to go. 

"We're really spending this first week building relationships with our students and making sure they feel comfortable," said Kermit McKenzie Principal Alex Jáuregui. "The past 16 months have been rough for our new teachers, our veteran teachers and, most importantly, our kids." 

In between classes, teachers hurried to wipe down desks in their classroom and lay out materials for a new group of kids. Those who started teaching in the district during the pandemic, like math teacher Sam Rojas and science teacher Mario Perez, said it was heartwarming to finally be with students in person. 

"It’s a breath of fresh air," Perez said. "I had students today that I had in my class last year, so it was nice to have some familiar faces. There was a little nervousness in the beginning, but those nerves go away." 

While independent study options were available to students who did not want to return to campus, organized in partnership with Orcutt Academy, officials said less than 1% of district students chose that option.

With the extended period of distance learning in the spring and an initial attempt at in-person learning with summer school, Superintendent Emilio Handall said he is confident in the district's safety plan, but that staff and students are encouraged to remain vigilant about any illness symptoms. 

According to the district's COVID-19 safety plan, any students or staff with COVID-19 symptoms will be required to stay home, and all families and staff will be informed of any possible COVID-19 cases on campus. 

"We had a six-week summer school where we were able to practice some of our protocols. We do feel more comfortable; however, with this new rise in the COVID [delta] variant, we are still on high alert," Handall said. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom also announced Wednesday that all California teachers will be required to be fully vaccinated or undergo weekly testing by Oct. 15, following a similar announcement this month for state employees and health-care workers.

While many parents have expressed relief at having kids back in the classroom, the ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases still has some parents worried, especially since children under age 12 are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. 

"Honestly, I don’t agree with going back, with all the cases going on. I lost a lot of loved ones [to COVID-19], including vaccinated people," parent Rolando Ruiz said. "We'll take it the way it comes, I guess. We’ll see what it brings us." 

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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