By Haley Sawyer
On a Monday morning, the Festa family had a dance party. Anna Festa’s kindergartner son sat on the top of the parked family car while a remix of the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” soundtrack blared from the inside.
“(It) was very uplifting and exciting,” Festa said, while standing outside Arroyo Vista Elementary School. “So, yeah, we sang our lungs out and danced.”
It was the first day of in-person school, and it was a cause for celebration. The first day of school is always a big deal, but in 2021 perhaps it is even more so, since the COVID-19 pandemic delayed on-campus instruction. In fact, it hasn’t happened here at all in nearly a year.
After teaching classes remotely since the start of the school year, South Pasadena Unified School District’s elementary schools hosted the first day of kindergarten on Monday as part of the phased reopening of campus for transitional kindergarten through 2nd grade.
At Arroyo Vista, parents dropped off their children in person at the designated entrance and presented a daily wellness check on their smartphones. The students had their temperature scanned by school personnel, then proceeded to their classrooms while parents snapped photos from afar.
Festa was an advocate for bringing students back to campus, as was Eric Voncannon, whose son is in 1st grade at Arroyo Vista, with the best interest of their children’s mental and emotional health.
“I think just the socialization is such an important part of their development, especially at 1st grade, at a young age, and elementary school, being with their peers,” Voncannon said. “I just think it’s really helpful for them at this age, as opposed to being on Zoom in front of a computer all day long.”
Ten additional support staff members were hired at Arroyo Vista specifically to aid in COVID-19 prevention protocol. Each elementary school has spent months planning for the return to in-person learning, whether it was moving desks to be compliant with social distancing or placing arrows on the floors in hallways to control the flow of foot traffic.
Representatives from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health approved the district’s preparations at each elementary school in early January.
“We’ve been working out a system since day one, because this was our goal, to get kids back on campus,” Arroyo Vista principal Kim Sinclair said. “So we’ve been preparing the campus, preparing protocols, working on communications to parents.”
Festa, who has a background in education, did her best to make at-home school enjoyable for her son, but the isolation still took a toll on him, she said.
“At first he was very happy he didn’t have to go to school. It was the best thing ever,” Festa said. “And we did a really fun homeschooling program, so he loved it. He loved not being at school, but then after the summer, and going back into school, and not having friends around, I think that’s when I think that new normal got too normal for him.”
Now that SPUSD elementary schools have boots on the ground once again, parents are feeling relieved and prepared for a new chapter in their children’s education.
“The schools have done a really good job making the parents and the kids feel safe,” Voncannon said, “and all the safety protocols they have in place makes us feel safe as a family, bringing them back.”