A look at this year’s most unusual back-to-school

It kinda feels like a regular year…kinda.

It’s normal. Almost.

It’s the same, but different.

Those were the sentiments overheard the first day of school around Southern California.

Second-grade teacher Wendy Verrall’s takes students’ temperatures during the first day of class at Tustin Ranch Elementary School in Tustin, CA on Wednesday, August 11, 2021. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Sergio Tovar takes a picture of his kids, Jacob Tovar, 5th grade, and Irie Tovar, 1st grade, on the first day of school at Weaver Elementary School in Rossmoor, CA, on Wednesday, August 4, 2021. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Joe and Lucy Albera send their son, Joe Joe Albera into his kindergarten class on the first day of school at Weaver Elementary School in Rossmoor, CA, on Wednesday, August 4, 2021. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Campus supervisor Yolanda Fierros directs Valentin Quintero III to his kindergarten class on the first day of instruction at Roosevelt Elementary School in Anaheim, CA, on Thursday, August 12, 2021. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Gabriella Worrell, 4, looks through a hole in the gate as she watches her sister, Marjorie Worrell head to her second grade class on the first day of instruction at Roosevelt Elementary School in Anaheim, CA, on Thursday, August 12, 2021. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

First grade teacher Julie Smith walks her students on a tour of Roosevelt Elementary School oh the first day of instruction in Anaheim, CA, on Thursday, August 12, 2021. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Teacher Wendy Billman gives a group hug to Eli Green, Jillian Houdek and Sophie Boyne, from left, during the first day of class at Laguna Niguel Elementary School in Laguna Niguel, CA on Tuesday, August 17, 2021. Billman taught the girls last year in 4th grade. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Third-grade teacher Becky Maturo, right, welcomes students back during the first day of class at Stanford Elementary School in Garden Grove, CA on Monday, August 16, 2021. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Parent volunteer, Leigh Hansen, talks with student, Melanie Ramirez, 7, on her first day of school which began at Gates Elementary School in Lake Forest on Monday August 16, 2021.
(Photo by Karen Tapia, Contributing Photographer)

Students make their way to class for the first day of school at Tustin Ranch Elementary School in Tustin, CA on Wednesday, August 11, 2021. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer helps Ziad Faraj, 5, with his assignment as she visits his kindergarten class to observe COVID-19 protocols at Repetto Elementary School in Monterey Park on Tuesday, August 17, 2021. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

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Most public school students returned to full-time classes in August, with masks required when inside – a far cry from the mixture of socially distanced hybrid schooling and online classes that students suffered through last year.

Roosevelt Elementary first grade teacher Julie Smith not only returned to the classroom, but to a new school. The Anaheim Elementary School District completely rebuilt the aging site and welcomed students back to campus with sparkling new buildings and clean classrooms.

Early in the day, Smith took her class on a tour of the new facility. She said even though she is teaching first grade, most of her students were in class for the first time, noting it was going to be like teaching kindergartners about school – adding that she was pleased with how mature her students were at handling the transition.

“Students, parents and staff have been waiting for this day for nearly a year and a half,” said Dr. Christopher Downing, AESD superintendent. “Our students will now have the full on-campus experience, learning alongside their peers in person. Such interactions are integral to their academic, social and emotional growth.”

In Lake Forest, parent volunteer Leigh Hansen wore a dinosaur costume while welcoming students at Gates Elementary School; youngsters at Laguna Niguel Elementary School tossed beach balls to each other in class during roll call.

In San Bernardino, Victoria Morales, the principal at Paakuma Elementary School, stationed herself outside the main entrance more than half an hour before the campus opened, just to make sure any early arrivers knew where to go.

“I’m looking forward to allowing the students to reacclimate with what school is about – the friends and the learning and the companionship and just the encouragement from their peers and their teachers that was so missing during distance learning,” Morales said. “I’m very, very eager to fill those learning gaps that may have been accumulated during distance learning and take students to the next level.”

Teachers and staff at Garden Grove’s Stanford Elementary School formed a welcoming line, waving homemade signs and cheering as students walked onto the campus.

In the north end of Orange County, students at Weaver Elementary were among the first to start school. The kindergarten through fifth-grade students started instruction on Aug. 3 with a noticeable difference from last year – parents.

More ‘Illuminate’

This story is part of a collection of stories printed Sunday, September 26, 2021.
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During the 2020-2021 school year, parents weren’t allowed on the Rossmoor-area campus. But this year, moms and dads roamed around, greeting each other with hugs and high-fives, greeting friends as if they were the ones returning from summer vacation.

In the San Fernando Valley, where all LAUSD students were required to get a COVID-19 test before returning to school, Liggett Street Elementary teacher Mia Cortez said, “We’re all feeling excited and also nervous, but really looking forward to finding something close to pre-pandemic ‘normal’ and making the best of our situation safely.”

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