First wave of Lodi students return to campus after a year of distance learning

Washington Elementary School students wait outside at 8 a.m. Monday to go inside for the first day of in-person instruction in more than a year.

After more than a year away from the classroom, Lodi Unified School District students returned to campus Monday.

A handful of students and their parents lined up at several entryways into Washington Elementary School just before 8 a.m., anxious to get back inside for the first day of in-person instruction since March 13, 2020.

“I’m excited to go back,” 7-year-old Graham Reynolds said. “Because I’m tired of sitting in a chair all day. I can’t take it.”

His mother Wendy Reynolds said she was happy he was returning to campus because as a special needs student, he was lacking access to services that benefit both his education and well-being. She also wanted him to be around his friends and teachers again.

“(The last year of distance learning) was good, but he has special needs, so it was harder to make sure he was getting everything he needs,” she said. (”The district) did the best they could while it was happening. They broke (schedules) up, but there was more computer time than I’d like there to be.”

Students returned to campus this week thanks to a March 15 ruling by a San Diego judge who sided with a group of parents that said pandemic rules unfairly prohibited school districts from reopening for in-person instruction.

The ruling caused the California Department of Public Health to revise its guidelines for school districts, which included changing social distancing between students in classrooms from 4 feet to 3. In addition, districts can offer in-person instruction to any grade level in any tier of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy if their county’s adjusted case rate is less than 25 per 100,000 residents a day.

The guidance also recommended a phased-in approach to returning, and districts must have safety plans submitted to their county health officers and state safety teams if they are still in the purple tier.

San Joaquin County remained in the purple tier last week, with an adjusted case rate of 11.7 per 100,000 residents a day. Health officials are hoping the county’s case rate will decrease today for one week’s worth of credit toward the red tier.

They are hoping the county will be promoted to the red tier next Tuesday.

The school district announced last week it will bring all students back in a phased-in approach for safety reasons, and is hoping to have grades seven through 12 return to campus in the next couple if weeks,

Elementary students will be split into two groups, with one half attending campus two days a week and engaging in remote learning for two days. All students will learn remotely on Wednesdays.

Middle and high school students who are enrolled in special day classes or are considered high priority will attend campus in cohorts.

“Lodi Unified was thrilled to welcome our K-6 and special day class students back to school campuses today,” Dr. Cathy Nichols-Washer, the district’s superintendent, said Monday afternoon.

“We have missed seeing our students in person and our staff has worked extremely hard to prepare for this day,” she said. “We know that our staff and students alike were happy to see one another on campus. We look forward to seeing our second group of students tomorrow for their equally joyous return to their school sites.”

After students were dismissed for the minimum day Monday, Needham Elementary School principal Rich Perez said there were only a few hiccups to the first day of school, as some children were confused as to which group — A or B — they were assigned to for the day.

Other than that, it was a successful first day, he said, as students maintained social distancing both in and out of the classroom.

“They were very happy to be here, and we were excited about that,” he said. “They were very calm. The sixth graders really wanted to talk and interact, so we have dots out on the playground, so I told the girls and the guys you can talk, and that’s why we have these markers out here for you at a safe distance, so that went really well.”

Tisha Bautista waited outside Needham at noon Monday to pick up her 9-year-old daughter Nevaeh Chester.

She said she was happy her daughter was able to go back and socialize with people after a year of distance learning, even though the third-grader did well with distance learning.

“It’s rough because I’m a full-time mom, so I work and go to school as well,” she said. “So it’s hard trying to get her the learning she needs. With (students) on distance learning, (teachers) don’t spend enough time on the one-on-one interaction. A child needs that one-on-one, and I don’t feel like she was getting that.”

Chester said her first day back was fun, because she was able to see her friends and teacher.

“Today was good,” she said. “I learned about math, and I liked learning this way better than on the computer.”

Parent Kevin Welk said his second-grade son Alexander was ecstatic to be going back to school. However, Kevin Welk had mixed feelings about returning to campus with just a handful of weeks left in the academic year.

“Yes, the kids need social adapting, but this thing’s still out of control,” he said. “With five or six weeks left in the school year, (the district) should have done (the rest of the year) at home. Let everything settle down over the summer, people are getting vaccinated now. The kids by this point were rolling with (distance learning), and bam, they’re going back.”

Students who do not feel comfortable returning to school can remain on distance learning for the remainder of the school year.

The district said there are 3,200 elementary school students choosing to remain on distance learning, as well as 850 middle school students and 2,240 high school students. That does not include Middle College, Independence High School or the Valley Robotics Academy, the district said.

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