Parents and students were lined up before the gates opened Alisal Elementary School last week, eager to return to in-person learning since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Pleasanton Unified School District to close almost exactly one year ago.
Even before families arrived, PUSD Trustee Steve Maher told the Weekly, "the excitement in the air, you could feel it."
Going back to school can trigger anxiety for some children but Maher -- who welcomed back students in pre-kindergarten through second grade to Alisal on the morning of March 4, along with other district cabinet members and staff -- said this time "I didn't see any students crying; I didn't see any hesitation."
"When the students started showing up, their eyes were just wide and they were so eager to get out of the car," Maher said. "I couldn't see their faces, their smiles, because they had masks on, but I knew they were excited because they got right out of the car."
Select stable cohorts of students have been on site for certain programs since summer, but last week marked the beginning of a return to normalcy for many Pleasanton families that reported struggling with the virtual curriculum since March 2020.
Enacting the phased reopening plan unanimously approved last month by the Board of Trustees, pre-K through second grade came back on March 4 and students in grades 3 to 5 followed on Monday. Middle and high schools were on track to reopen this Thursday (March 11) after the state moved Alameda County into the less-restrictive red tier.
The atmosphere at Alisal on March 4 could easily be compared to the first day of school -- which was officially back in August -- with parents reporting that their students were specially prepared for the big day.
"I cried walking him across the street; it felt really good," Jen Kratochvil said when arriving at Alisal with her son Knox that morning. "I'm so happy I feel so relieved for him. He was so excited too, he got up really early today and picked out his outfit on Monday. I'm really happy for him; he's been waiting for this."
Jasmine Alvarez's kindergartner, Joshua, was also "so excited" about coming back to school, she said.
"He laid out his clothes last night and he's ready to go back to school. He even said, 'I'm ready to go back to school,'" Alvarez said.
Families still have the option to remain in remote learning under PUSD's hybrid system, but parent Fionnuala Killian told the Weekly that her family feels "like we've made the right choice" when dropping off her first-grader Max on March 4.
"It's great that everyone has options to stay at home as well and make their own decisions, but for us it worked. With our schedule, we're feeling good about it," Killian said.
With PUSD sites reopening again, Maher added, "maybe a little bit of normalcy is coming back."
Things won't be exactly the same as before for some time, however. Due to physical distancing requirements, students in hybrid learning are in much smaller classes when on site, attending either in the morning or afternoon and then completing their other assignments at home.
In an interview on Monday, PUSD Superintendent David Haglund said, "Generally, across the schools it's about 55% that have returned, but some are much higher."
More notably, about 75% of students are back at Valley View Elementary for in-person learning. Haglund attributed the school's higher percentage of hybrid learners to its dual immersion language program, which he said "really is an immersive program -- the teachers speak primarily Spanish to the students while they're there."
In most of the classrooms that Maher visited over the past week, he said there were about a dozen students at any given time.
Even with fewer students onsite, "I was out in classrooms today and seeing the level of complexities the teachers are having to manage in classrooms -- students in front of them and at home -- it is a complex thing they're being asked to do," Haglund said.
"One teacher described it as keeping the plates up on the sticks like at the circus. We've got great teachers and they're figuring it out," the superintendent added.
State law requires public school districts to still offer remote learning for families during the pandemic, but Helen Harvey said while dropping off her daughter at Alisal last week that she was "feeling great" about students going back to school.
"This will be great for them," Harvey said. "We're feeling safe and everyone will be in masks, so that's great. I think the district has done a great job to keep us informed and prepared."
Key changes at sites to ensure staff and student safety include industrial-sized containers of hand sanitizer in all classrooms and common areas, keeping students at least six feet apart, wearing face coverings, and upgraded air ventilation systems as needed.
Amid the significant changes, though, Maher said "the kids seem to be fine. When I went to visit class, they were working on fractions."
With state funding taking a hit during the pandemic, PUSD has received nearly $7.4 million of learning loss mitigation funds since March 2020 -- $6.3 million of which has been expended, according to district documents. The total includes $4.2 million from the federal CARES Act, which must be spent by the end of May.
Much of the money already received has been used to hire additional support staff for reopening, officials said, and the district is also waiting on an anticipated $4.43 million grant for supporting in-person instruction from the state. Another possible $9.35 million from a statewide "Expanded Learning Opportunities Grant" program is still pending.
The majority of teachers at the elementary level have resumed teaching in person, though Haglund said a total of three primary teachers were granted leave, and another group has received special accommodations.
"At Vintage Hills they had some students that wanted to be remote, so they were able to put the remote students with a teacher who is requesting accommodations," Haglund said. "They're still working on some of the secondary ones."
Secondary students were set to start coming back to campus Thursday after the state advanced Alameda County into the red tier of the COVID-19 case monitoring system. Friday (staff development day) and Monday (negotiated holiday) are off-days for all students, under the instructional calendar approved before the school year.
The reopening of middle and high schools already has staff and parents planning for possible in-person graduation ceremonies this year, which Haglund expects will be informed by state guidelines on public gatherings.
"We're kind of on hold until we get that information from the state," Haglund said. "I think students and parents would love to be back on their campuses, and we'd like to see that too, the question is what does that look like."
Whenever the county reaches the orange tier, Haglund said student athletics will reopen more and spectators may possibly be allowed to attend competitions again, which are currently restricted to competitors and essential staff.
Though "not a normal setting" at the moment, parent Margo Shimy said her sons are now at least able to see their peers in person at Walnut Grove Elementary.
"Obviously, we're in the middle of a pandemic so there is that anxiousness, those nerves, but Walnut Grove has done a great job prepping the school," Shimy said. "They've done an amazing job getting everybody ready. You feel confident from just seeing how they've been prepping and what everything looks like."
With one son in fifth grade and the other in kindergarten, Shimy said their experiences returning were notably different. Her younger son, Liam, "was so excited" to finally see his kindergarten teacher in person for the first time, and also solidified some friendships made virtually earlier this year.
"Even from a distance they're making connections, in person. They are still there at a distance and in a mask, but you still get that connection," Shimy added.
The day of reopening, Shimy said, "We walked to school, he barely said goodbye to me. He just walked right in, he felt right at home walking right onto campus. When I picked him up that day, he was so excited telling me all about his day."
There were back-to-school jitters for her older son, Lucas, but it was unrelated to the usual worries such as making friends.
"He was more nervous about not doing things wrong because now there's the different rules," Shimy said. "He asked me, 'Am I going to get in trouble if I get in the wrong line?' And I tell him, 'Oh, no, no, no, everybody's learning at the same time.'"
When Lucas came home later that day, Shimy said he declared "it was the best day."
"That community feeling feels really good to go back to," Shimy added. "It felt good to see the people again for me; I love it."
Editor's note: Weekly reporter Ryan J. Degan contributed to this story.