Thousands of K-12 students returned to classrooms Thursday for the first day of school in Santa Maria's main elementary and high school districts after months of learning behind a computer screen.

While limited online learning options continue to be available, administrators in both the Santa Maria-Bonita School District and Santa Maria Joint Union High School District were happy to see the majority of their students opt for in-person learning on the first day.

"The kids are back, and they bring a lot of energy to the school site. There’s a rejuvenated positivity to being back to school; in the past, they’ve felt like they had to be here, and now they want to be here," Santa Maria High School Principal Steve Campbell said. 

During passing period at Santa Maria High, the walkways outside the school buildings that had been mostly empty for nearly 18 months once again were filled with students rushing to their classes.

Senior Maria Pacheco, 17, said it was surreal but exciting to be back on campus after the pandemic had kept them away for so long. The fact that she is vaccinated, she said, helps her to feel more comfortable being around so many people again.

"I remember, we were getting ready to start our last event of the month for FFA, and then they said, 'we’re going online,'" Pacheco said, recalling the last time she was on campus for a normal day of school in March 2020. "It’s really exciting being back and seeing a lot of new people. Hopefully, we can finish out our year."

In the elementary district, none seemed more excited than the teachers and students at Libbon Elementary School on Miller Street, the district's 21st and newest school site that was being constructed until mid-2020.

On the first day of school, teachers took time to lead students through the different buildings to learn the location of the bathroom, water fountains, playgrounds and other important landmarks of the school.

"The irony is, the school was built for communal learning right as COVID hit," district spokeswoman Maggie White said, noting the open-classroom layout with features like sliding glass doors.

After spending time together inside, first grade teacher Nicole Doti watched her 26-student class play on the outdoor playground, taking sweatshirts and helping kids tie shoes when needed.

"We’re getting to know each other and talking about our feelings," she said of the first day. "It’s been a hard year, and some of their families have gone through some traumatic things, so we're just making them comfortable." 

While recent parent surveys indicated that around 10% of students in the Santa Maria-Bonita district preferred some form of distance learning, mostly due to COVID-19 concerns, the number has shrunk significantly since details about the planned independent study program were released last week.

Unlike the virtual classroom environment of distance learning, this year's alternative to in-person instruction is a homeschool-style program taught by instructors in a program called Edgenuity, rather than district teachers.

During a Wednesday board meeting, officials shared the example of one of the junior high schools, where 300 families were interested in distance learning this year but the number shrank to 30 after parents heard what the program would actually be like. 

"It's that mind shift, of the things that we did last year aren't the expectations going forward in independent study. There's a lot of responsibility, a lot of accountability that we didn't have in distance learning," Superintendent Luke Ontiveros said. 

The total number of students that will be involved in independent study versus in-person learning is still being calculated. 

The rate of high school students choosing independent study is similarly low, with around 1% of the Santa Maria High School population opting into the virtual learning academy at this point, Campbell said. 

The Guadalupe Union School District resumed classes on Wednesday, and the neighboring Orcutt Union School District will return Friday.

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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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