Across California, schools are opening their doors again, a first step toward rebounding from the pandemic. But for most students in EdSource’s families project, life remains far from normal.

Some are having trouble navigating new school schedules and routines, forgetting to bring their tablets to school or meeting the school bus on time. Others are struggling with the new rules: staying 6 feet apart, walking one way down the hall, eating lunch without their friends.

A significant number of families have decided to skip in-person school altogether, even after a year of watching students struggle with distance learning and endure isolation and loneliness. The complicated scheduling logistics and the risk of infection outweigh the benefits of being in the classroom for the final few weeks of the school year, they said.

“I feel I’ve hit my limit,” said Moira Allbritton, whose children Lucy and Charlie are enrolled in San Diego Unified School District. “It’s too much. There seems to be a lack of consideration for all that families have to juggle.”

Complicating matters, schools have adopted hybrid models as varied as the state itself. Some are open five days a week, but for only a few hours. Others are open alternating days. Still others call for teachers to be in the classroom while most students remain at home. Plans are likely to change again in the fall.

But for many students, returning to the classroom has been pure joy. After a year of stress and uncertainty, they’re relishing every moment they can visit with friends, get to know their teachers and learn in the company of their classmates.

“(My daughter)’s very, very happy to go back to school. When I would wake her up for virtual learning, it was a battle,” said Miriam Arambula, whose 5-year-old daughter recently started in-person school in Fresno Unified. “But last week… she was so happy to wake up and get ready and go to school.”

Tatum Fox, a senior at Lucerne Valley High School, said she didn’t mind the staggered schedules and social-distance rules and all the other hurdles. She’s just thrilled to be back on campus for the last few weeks before graduation.

“I think it’s a very great way to kick off the rest of the year with opening back up,” she said. “And finally getting to be almost normal again.”


Credit: Courtesy of Ann Hoeffer

Ann Hoeffer’s grandkids with their behavioral therapist.

Ann Hoeffer and grandchildren

Lake County

With the younger children back in school full time, life is almost back to normal for Ann Hoeffer and her family in rural Lake County.

“The younger ones are doing great. It’s the older ones,” said Hoeffer, who’s helping raise her six grandchildren. “They’re only going to school two days a week, and it’s not enough.”

The youngest three children — Esmerelda, 4, Gabriel, 5, and Jesse, 6 — have been going to in-person school five days a week for several months. Gabriel and Jesse, who both have autism, have made significant leaps forward thanks to their teachers and therapists, and the stable routine. Jesse can write his name, Gabriel can get himself dressed, and their social skills have improved.

But the older three — Elissa, 16, Irie, 11, and Caylee, 10 — are in a different school district that’s only open for in-person class two days a week. Irie is still struggling in math, and Hoeffer and her daughter, Amber, have difficulties helping her because the way math is being taught has changed since they were in school.

Credit: Courtesy of Ann Hoeffer

Gabriel, 5, works with his therapist at home.

“Is she even learning anything? We don’t know,” Hoeffer said. “It’s frustrating because we can’t do anything about it.”

Elissa, a junior at Clear Lake High, is thrilled to be back at school but said the hybrid model is a shadow of what school should be. In history class, she’s the only student in the classroom; the rest are online. In math, she’s one of only two students. There are no group projects or class discussions. The hallways are all one way, and students have to walk circuitous routes to get around campus. She can only socialize with other students in the same group she’s been assigned to.

Gone are all the activities she loved: cheerleading, drama, dances.

“It’s bizarre. It feels like it’s not even school,” she said. “I hope it’s back to normal for my senior year.”

But she’s noticed a few upsides. Students are so eager to connect there’s been a surge of new clubs, including a club to support LGBTQ students and a book club. Some students are also planning an off-campus prom.

And in general, students seem friendlier.

“A lot of kids are making new friends with people they wouldn’t ordinarily hang out with,” she said. “I’ve met a lot of new people. That’s been really nice.”

Hoeffer is hoping the district opens its middle and high schools full-time. She’s not worried about her grandchildren contracting the virus or bringing it home.

“What happens, happens,” she said. “What worries me more is the kids’ education. The ones who were getting straight A’s will do fine, but the ones who were on the edge of falling through the cracks, well, now they are falling through the cracks.”

— Carolyn Jones


Credit: Courtesy of Rashida Dunn-Nasr

Audrey, William and Noah Tiato.

Dunn-Nasr Family

Sacramento

Rashida Dunn-Nasr isn’t ready to send her four children back to school campuses quite yet. She isn’t confident it’s safe.

So Jayden, William, Noah and Audrey, who are in 9th, 6th, 5th and 4th grades, respectively, continued learning from home after Sacramento City Unified reopened campuses on April 8.

They are not alone. A district survey showed that 47 percent of the families who answered the survey — representing 81 percent of the district’s 43,000 students — planned to remain in distance learning this school year.

Dunn-Nasr was caught off guard in March when she learned the school district had announced plans to reopen campuses in April. Her children had been taking Zoom classes from home for a year under her supervision.

“Oh my gosh. I see they are saying return in April,” she said upon learning about the district’s plan. “I don’t know how I feel about that. The reason being is that they don’t have clear guidelines about how they are going to safely bring children back. And with the lunch and school meal providers getting sick and other school faculty, I think it will be a domino effect if and when children go back to school.”

But at least two of her children were eager to be back in school with their teachers and friends. Noah and his sister Audrey, who are enrolled at Martin Luther King Jr. K-8 School, were looking forward to going back to the campus when interviewed in March.

“I’d go back,” Audrey said. “I think it would just be easier.”

Despite that, Audrey acknowledges she is worried about going back to her campus, although she says she could wear a mask and stay 6 feet away from other kids.

William, a 6th-grade student at Martin Luther King Jr., said he doesn’t mind staying home for the rest of the school year.

“I mean, I don’t like it as much, but I haven’t gotten into as much trouble since I’ve had to stay home, but I’d like to go back,” he said.

Jayden, a freshman at Kennedy High School, has never taken a class on the campus. He doesn’t mind distance learning because he doesn’t have to wait for his class to complete work before he can move on to other assignments.

“We will probably do that option, to finish out the school year at home and explore it next school year,” Dunn-Nasr said.

Diana Lambert


Credit: Courtesy of Carolyn Bims-Payne

Oakland brothers Michael Lee, left, Jaylen Lee, right, are more than ready for summer vacation, their mother Carolyn Bims-Payne said. Burned out from looking at a computer screen all day, Michael has been reading Harlem Summer by Walter Dean Myers in his free time.

Carolyn Bims-Payne and Sons

Oakland

After a tough year of distance learning, Jaylen and Michael Lee, 10 and 13, couldn’t be more ready for summer vacation, their mother Carolyn Bims-Payne said.

“They are burnt out,” Bims-Payne said. “Their facial expressions while in class say ‘I’m just here so I don’t get in trouble.’”

Bims-Payne said she’s as ready for summer as they are.

“Come on summer. I don’t want to check any more work; I want a mental break,” she said.

Neither Jaylen nor Michael will be returning to the classroom this semester. Though Jaylen’s 4th grade class has an in-person option on Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to 3 p.m., Bims-Payne couldn’t make it work with her job schedule as a social worker.

“He was looking forward to recess and being with his classmates, but unfortunately that won’t be able to happen,” Bims-Payne said.

She said Jaylen and Michael’s relationships with their friends have been declining, and they are unable to make new friends while not in school.

Despite their distance learning fatigue, Jaylen and Michael are mostly keeping up with their schoolwork, Bims-Payne said. They were behind on a few assignments this week, but she said she’s being patient with them.

I’ve learned my lesson on perfection during the pandemic,” Bims-Payne said. “My expectations have lowered.”

Though Oakland Unified is planning on a full return to in-person instruction in the fall, Bims-Payne said she’s strongly considering taking Jaylen and Michael out of the district. She’s hoping to get them into A Better Chance — a national college preparatory program designated for students of color that partners with non-district schools.

Bims-Payne said her decision to take her children out of the district is “no fault on OUSD,” but because she wants a program more tailored to Jaylen and Michael’s needs.

Ali Tadayon


Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Ramos

Skyline High School senior Jessica Ramos and her dog Lucky visit UCLA, where Ramos is considering going to college. She said the excitement of starting college in the fall is what’s getting her through the last few weeks of a grueling year of distance learning.

Ramos Family

Oakland

With only five weeks left of school, Skyline High School senior Jessica Ramos is struggling to cross the finish line.

Because Oakland Unified is only bringing back elementary school students and some middle and high school students, Ramos will continue distance learning for the remainder of her high school career. She said she’s grappling with a backlog of assignments that need to be turned in, which is causing her grades to slip.

“I’m losing motivation; I really wish it was over,” Ramos said. “Not just distance learning; school in general. I feel like I’m tired, even though it’s just a click away. I feel like it’s so much work to click on a link or anything.”

Ramos’ light at the end of the tunnel, however, is going to college in the fall. Though she didn’t get into her dream school, Stanford, she was accepted to several other prestigious schools, and narrowed down her choices to UCLA and UC Berkeley. Though her choice will depend on how much scholarship money she receives from both institutions, she’s leaning toward UCLA.

Ramos visited UCLA over the weekend, and said she “didn’t want to come back” — especially given the uptick in violence in East Oakland since the pandemic. 

College will be her first in-person instruction since the pandemic. Though she has some jitters about returning to the classroom, she’s mostly excited.

“I miss the human interaction, especially when it comes to meeting new people and meeting new professors,” Ramos said. “But I’m definitely also scared, because I don’t know what the future holds.”

Another light at the end of the tunnel for Ramos is having an in-person graduation celebration. Though Oakland Unified is doing a virtual graduation ceremony for all students, there will be in-person ceremonies for the schools’ college and career pathway programs. Ramos was in the pathway program at her school for careers in education and health.

But like many of her friends, she’s just ready to put this year behind her.

“A lot of seniors just want to get their diploma and leave because there’s no motivation, and work keeps on piling up, but they don’t have enough help of support to get through it,” Ramos said. “I’m not going to deny I feel like that, too. I have a lot of support, but I don’t have the motivation in me.”

Ali Tadayon


Photo courtesy of the Tran family

The Tran family of San Jose, outside their new house, which they moved into in July: from left, Andrew, Kathy, 7th grade twins Aidan and Karyn, 12, 2nd grader Camdyn, 7, and high school sophomore Carly, 15.

Kathy Lieu, Andrew Tran and children

San Jose

Of Kathy Lieu and Andrew Tran’s four children, spanning 2nd through 10th grade, only 7th grader Aidan is physically back in school. He is in a hybrid model, with every other week at a charter school in San Jose. The other three are continuing where they began last spring, at home, learning remotely.

That’s OK, with Lieu, who said the family now has the distance learning routine down, and the two girls — Aidan’s twin, Karyn, and high school sophomore, Carly — are getting good grades and doing well academically. With the restart of the club swim team next week, at least there will be one face-to-face activity that will let the three oldest kids socialize again after 15 months.

Karyn and Carly had essentially no choice about going back. Carly attends Silver Creek High in the East Side Union High School District. A big district serving seven elementary and middle school feeder districts in a wide swath of East San Jose, it includes low-income neighborhoods that have been among the hardest hit in the Bay Area.

Although the East Side Union school board decided last fall that it would remain in distance for the year, the district is now offering in-person tutoring and counseling one or two days each week. Infection rates have dropped, and schools are inviting students to return. Carly didn’t see the need.

Karyn will ride it out at home because College Connections Academy, an accelerated program that starts with two years in middle school and ends with a high school diploma and a community college associate’s degree, isn’t bringing students back. Lieu is disappointed because, good grades notwithstanding, she said the pandemic has adversely impacted Karyn. She has become more introverted and spends a lot of time in her room on the computer. Without hands-on science and learning with others, she has lost enthusiasm.

“She completely changed her idea about school.  She used to be excited about it. Now it’s ‘I don’t care’ most of the time,” Lieu said.

Lieu is hoping supervised visits with a few friends in a nearby park will bring back more joy.

Lieu thought long and hard about sending 7-year-old Camdyn to a split-shift hybrid model at the Cornerstone Academy charter school, starting this month. But Camdyn likes being around his mom, and lunch is better at home, so Lieu, who serves on the school site council, decided to give up their spot to make room for another family. It was a gracious offer, with the promise to Camdyn he’d still be able to see his best friend outside of school.

Aidan is still learning by Zoom, only it’s from a classroom on alternate weeks with teachers instructing two audiences: students sitting in front of them and those who are at home. On weeks when he’s not in class, he joins other students who are easily distracted or have other learning issues in the auditorium in supervised distance learning. Turning over his cell phone at the start of each day resolves one distraction.

Aidan does get to talk with friends over picnic tables at lunch. And for a social kid who thrives on joking around, that makes all the difference.

— John Fensterwald


Credit: Courtesy of Armanda Ruiz

Priscila Ruiz Ramirez, 11, gets off the school bus at her home in Los Banos after attending special education in person.

Ruiz/Gutierrez Family

Los Banos

Armanda Ruiz had planned on keeping her daughter Priscila home to continue distance learning because she was worried about the risk of Covid-19 in her daughter’s 5th-grade special education classroom. But on the first day that some classmates were back in person, Ruiz realized that Zoom classes had been moved to the afternoon. And Priscila is always anxious to connect to school right after breakfast.

“Even with all my fear of the pandemic and even though my daughter is delicate because of her illnesses, I thought it was better to send her in person,” Ruiz said. “If I didn’t send her, she would end up worse off and lose the year entirely. She was not going to have any motivation.”

Ruiz has always been extremely involved in her children’s education, helping them with homework and participating in parent groups. When her older children were in elementary school, she would buy each of them a workbook to finish every summer, so that they would be ready for the next school year. With Priscila, though, Ruiz has a harder time. Priscila was born prematurely, at 25 weeks. She has had multiple health problems all of her life, and she was diagnosed with autism at an early age. She receives speech therapy and occupational therapy. When Ruiz tries to teach her at home, and Priscila doesn’t understand, Ruiz gets frustrated, and she knows that her daughter does better with teachers who have special training to work with children with special needs.

After realizing that Priscila would have to wait several hours to do distance learning while some of her classmates were in class in person, Ruiz went to the school to sign Priscila up for in-person classes. Now, every morning, Priscila gets on the school bus to attend school from 8:30 to 11 a.m., and then rides home on the bus. In the afternoons, she has to finish work online independently.

Even though it is just for a few hours a day, Priscila is happy to be back at school. Ruiz can tell from her enormous smile, and how excited she is each day when she gets off the school bus to show her mom the note that says how her day went.

Priscila’s older brother Ignacio, who is a junior at Los Banos High School, is continuing to do all his work from home. If he attended in person, he would go to school only two days a week for a couple of hours a day, and Ruiz would have to drive him to and from school. As it is, she has to drive Ignacio to track practice and track meets, drive all of her children to frequent doctors’ appointments and make sure to be home when Priscila comes back from school on the bus at 11:20 a.m.

Ruiz feels a little less worried about Covid-19 now because she and all three older siblings are vaccinated. It also helps that she knows that only five students are attending Priscila’s special education class in person. Ruiz does worry about Priscila, though, since at 11 years old, she is still too young to receive a Covid-19 vaccine, and her health problems put her at risk. Mostly, though, Ruiz wishes Priscila had more time at school in person.

“Special education requires more time in person. They shouldn’t apply the same rules to children with special needs,” Ruiz said.

— Zaidee Stavely


Credit: Courtesy of Miriam Arambula

Adaline Curiel, 5, took a selfie with one of her previous teachers during her first day back on her campus.

Miriam Arambula and daughter

Fresno

Five-year-old Adaline Curiel is soaking up the social interactions and play time that she missed out on for the past year. Her school, Fresno Unified’s Early Learning Center, reopened to their students about two weeks ago, and school staff is prioritizing play as a way to reintegrate students to school on their campus. It also helps school staff and the children bond after not seeing each other in person for a year.

“First we play, then we go eat, then we play,” Curiel said when her mother asked her what her days at school have looked like. 

While she wants her daughter to be in school, Miriam Arambula is also hesitant about sending her for the full week. She and Curiel’s father opted to drop her off at school for just a few hours every day.

“As a parent, you’re still taking that exposure time into consideration,” Arambula said.

After her mother passed away from Covid-19 last year, Arambula wasn’t sure it would be safe to send Curiel back to school for in-person instruction. Curiel, who is now 5 years old, was first enrolled at the learning center when she was about 7 months old. The center provides childcare for young children, in addition to early education, such as pre-kindergarten or transitional kindergarten, as they grow older.

Experiencing a Covid-related loss has helped Curiel be more consistent with keeping her mask on, said Arambula. And it’s been a difficult loss to process, but she doesn’t want her daughter to live in fear or feel isolated because she can’t return to school while her friends can, she said.

Plus, she hasn’t seen Curiel this happy in a long time.

“She’s very, very happy to go back to school. When I would wake her up for virtual learning, it was a battle,” she said, adding that Curiel sometimes didn’t want to wake up for her class. “But last week… she was so happy to wake up and get ready and go to school.”

Or, as Curiel calls it, she’s happy to be back in “actual” school.

The long-time relationship with her school and the many safety measures they have taken reassured Arambula that school staff would do everything possible to keep Curiel and her classmates safe. 

“Knowing the teachers on a more personal level and communicating with them and volunteering in the center has also given me that big peace of mind,” Arambula said.

This year, Arambula got a job that gave her more flexibility and time to spend with Curiel. Once her school decided to reopen, she was relieved to find out that parents would be able to shift between distance learning and in-person instruction on any given day. The flexibility from the learning center lets her continue prioritizing her time with her daughter while giving her a few hours per week of social interactions outside her home. 

— Betty Márquez Rosales


Credit: Courtesy of Leticia Solano

Eusebio, Felipe and Mariacarmen Martinez, on their way to pick up food from school in Oxnard.

Solano Martinez Family

Oxnard

When Mariacarmen Martinez returned to in-person classes in Oxnard on April 12, her teacher sent home photos of her and her classmates twirling in circles during recess and standing 6 feet apart in the classroom, to maintain the distance to avoid spreading Covid-19.

Mariacarmen, who is in 3rd grade, and her younger brother Eusebio, in 1st grade, attend school in person four days a week from 8:30 to 11:15 a.m., and they spend their afternoons and Wednesdays doing schoolwork independently at home.

Credit: Courtesy of Leticia Solano

Eusebio and Mariacarmen Martinez outside their school in Oxnard, where they now attend classes in person four days a week.

Their younger brother Felipe, who is in kindergarten, is not attending in person because he goes to a different school that is farther away, and his mother Leticia Solano can’t walk all three of them to school on time.

Solano enrolled Felipe in that school because it offers a bilingual immersion program in Spanish and English, which their neighborhood school no longer offers. She had planned to send the kindergartner on the school bus, but there is no bus available at the moment, because of Covid-19.

“My older kids are really happy to be back in school,” Solano said, referring to Eusebio and Mariacarmen. “They are free there. They don’t have to sit as much as before. They have activities outside. They are really happy to see their friends.”

Felipe’s distance learning kindergarten day now starts later, at 12 p.m., because the school moved the schedules around so that some classmates can attend school in person. Solano said Felipe has more time to sleep in and is more able to focus on his work now. It also helps that he is the only one connected to school from home, and his mother can focus on helping him. Before, she had to help all three children at the same time.

“I feel more relaxed now,” Solano said.

It’s been hard to get used to the new schedule, though. Solano said the first day, she arrived a few minutes late to pick up her children, and the second day, she dropped them off late.

“It’s like starting everything over from scratch,” Solano said.

Solano and her husband, who is a farm worker, have not yet gotten their Covid-19 vaccines, but she hopes to get them soon. She recently helped create a video to encourage others to get their vaccines in her native language, Mixteco, an indigenous language from Oaxaca, Mexico.

— Zaidee Stavely


Credit: Courtesy of Shari Abercrombie

Ian Abercrombie, center, returns for his first day of in-person schooling this year at WISH Charter Elementary in West Los Angeles, where he is in 4th grade.

Abercrombie Family

Los Angeles

As Shari Abercrombie sends her son Ian back for in-person learning at his school in West Los Angeles, she is in wait-and-see mode.

Ian, a 4th-grade student at WISH Charter Elementary, has special needs, and his diagnoses include a brain malformation and an enlarged heart. Abercrombie is optimistic that returning to school will benefit Ian socially, but she’s also preparing for the possibility that it won’t go well. 

What if Ian doesn’t keep his mask on? Or what if he has trouble following physical distancing rules?

I am very hopeful for him and for me that it does go well, but there are so many factors. I’m trying to also be mentally prepared that if it doesn’t work, I don’t want to be too disappointed,” she said. 

Abercrombie has also spent the last year by Ian’s side for every minute that he’s spent in distance learning, working closely with him during his classes and while he worked on assignments. She’s nervous about how he’ll adjust being with a new paraprofessional instead of with her.

Credit: Courtesy of Shari Abercrombie

Ian Abercrombie, a 4th-grader in West Los Angeles, works on an art project during distance learning.

If anything goes wrong, Ian would go back to full-time distance learning, Abercrombie said. For now, though, Ian will be going back to in-person schooling for two or three days every week. 

Abercrombie said her motivation for sending Ian back was because of “purely social” reasons. 

“Socially, he really needs to get back with other kids,” she said.

However, Abercrombie was disappointed to learn that out of Ian’s classmates with whom he had gotten along the best, most of them won’t be in school when he is there. Either they have opted not to go back to face-to-face instruction at all, or they’re in a different cohort attending on different days of the week, she said.

Abercrombie also has some concerns that Ian could contract Covid-19, but she said Ian’s pediatrician, pulmonologist and geneticist all encouraged her to send him back.

“They all said to send him back. He needs to be back in school,” she said.

Abercrombie has also felt a sense of relief for her own well-being that Ian is going back to in-person schooling for part of each week. In recent months, she was feeling burnt out from supervising Ian during distance learning, which essentially was a full-time job for Abercrombie. 

Strategies she had implemented to keep him engaged in his classes, such as promising him time to use his iPad after school, had become less effective. She was also having trouble motivating herself and said it had “become a struggle to get anything done.”

Abercrombie is hopeful that sending Ian back to school will bring the rejuvenation they both need.

“With him being there for two or three days, depending on the week, I am so looking forward to him having that time. And for me and for us to have a break from each other,” she said.

Michael Burke 


Credit: Courtesy of Kerry Martinez

Ian Martinez, a transitional kindergarten student at KIPP Vida Preparatory Academy in South-Central Los Angeles, jump ropes at recess during his first day back at school this week.

Martinez Family

Los Angeles

For Kerry Martinez, sending her sons Ian and Alexander back to school for in-person learning is a welcome opportunity.

Ian is in transitional kindergarten at KIPP Vida Preparatory Academy in South-Central Los Angeles, while Alexander is in second grade at the same school. Ian returned this week for his first day of face-to-face instruction in more than a year, and Alexander’s first day is next week. They and other students are attending for two or three days each week and remaining in distance learning the rest of the week.

Credit: Courtesy of Kerry Martinez

Ian Martinez at his first day back at school this week.

Recently, distance learning has become especially difficult for Ian and Alexander. Martinez’s sister and her five children moved in with the Martinez family. With so many people in one household, it has made focusing during online classes an even bigger challenge than it already was. Ian and Alexander have been logging into their classes from the same room each day, and audio from their classes sometimes overlaps.

“It can be distracting for them,” Martinez said. “I know that if they go back to school, they’re going to focus more there because they’re not going to have those distractions.”

When Ian and Alexander attend in person, they and other students still bring their laptops with them and will be completing their work on those devices. The school day starts at 8:15 a.m. and ends by 11 a.m. 

The school is incorporating 15-minute recess periods into those daily schedules. Each student is provided with their own recess bag that has different equipment for outdoor activities, such as jump ropes. 

Even with the lack of a traditional classroom instruction, Martinez said she expects it will benefit her sons to get back in a regular routine.  

“They’re going to need to get up, have breakfast, get ready for school and all of that,” Martinez said. During distance learning, they’ve often wanted to skip breakfast and typically are anxious for the school day to end, she added.

Martinez is also looking forward to her sons being able to socialize with classmates that they haven’t seen all year. She said Ian is “very social” and was thrilled to go back to school, so she expects him to adapt quickly. 

She’s a bit less sure about Alexander, who she said is more reserved and hasn’t been as excited about returning to school as Ian has. But she added that she expects he will be able to adjust.

“I think that once he gets back to school, and he’s able to see actual kids, he’ll do OK,” she said.

Michael Burke


Credit: Jennifer Molina/EdSource

Kusema Thomas and his son, Kusema Thomas II

Kusema Thomas

Los Angeles

Like other middle schools in Los Angeles Unified, the Stephen M. White Middle School in Carson plans to open April 26 to students who chose to go back. Sixth-grader Kusema Thomas II will not be among them.  

That might seem surprising to readers who recall his struggle last fall with distance learning. For much of the first three months, Kusema II was lost in the system, when his father wasn’t battling it. After delays in enrolling, father and son spent weeks with a series of technical obstacles trying to sign on to Schoology, Los Angeles Unified’s online learning platform. Meanwhile, his father was getting daily automated texts warning him that his son was chronically absent, although the school didn’t reach out to him, contrary to district policy. Teachers gave his son failing grades.

The school was more responsive after EdSource wrote about the family’s plight. He got tech support and calls from administrators. After Christmas vacation, Kusema’s grades improved, and he fell into a regular school routine, doing distance learning from his grandmother’s house in the company of cousins who also were studying remotely.

Los Angeles Unified has undertaken some of the most stringent Covid safety measures to make schools safe for students’ return. It has upgraded air filters in classrooms, doubled its custodial staff to keep schools clean, provided adequate supplies of masks and other protective items to staff and opened two dozen vaccination centers in the hardest hit areas. Its Covid testing system is comprehensive, requiring all returning students to be tested the week before they come back, with weekly tests after that.

But Thomas’s decision to not send his son to school reflects both the continuing worry of families in hard-hit areas of the district about the risk of infection and an improvement in distance learning for his son. He also saw little value in the way the district was limiting in-person instruction.

Thomas has been vaccinated and is tested weekly because his work as a mental health counselor puts him in exposure to at-risk individuals, including the homeless. But, he says, Kusema is in a new school this year, and he doesn’t know the parents and how cautious they are. “And they’re kids,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to stop them from socializing. They want to play together, and they’re going to lose sight of Covid-19.”

Though far from fully satisfied with distance learning, circumstances have changed for the better. Recovering from a bad car accident, his fiancé has been staying home for a few months, keeping Kusema on task. That’s partly why his grade in math has risen to a B, cheering him up, Thomas said.

And this month, his English teacher reached out, and is now tutoring him and three other students virtually three days a week for an hour after school. “That’s been helpful with his comprehension,” Thomas said.

To help raise his grade in English above a D, Thomas plans to spend time reading with Kusema on weekends. He’ll start with a series of stories about the Black Panther superhero.

Los Angeles Unified is offering to bring middle and high school students back two days each week. The students will continue with distance learning — swapping Zoom from home with Zoom in a classroom. Students will be confined to one classroom all day and will watch their teachers teach from home. There will be an in-person warm-up activity to start the day.

Kusema would at least be able to attach faces to the blank screens that many students use instead of turning on their video from home.

That wasn’t a big enough incentive, compared with the risk, Thomas said. Other families must agree. Only 30% of Stephen M. White families answering a district survey said they planned to send their children back.

— John Fensterwald


Credit: Courtesy of Moira Allbritton

Charlie (left) received the Covid-19 vaccine and Lucy, a 7th grader in San Diego Unified, snaps a first day of returning to back to school photo.

Allbritton Family

San Diego

The Allbritton family had been eagerly awaiting a return to in-person school for more than a year. But when the children’s schools began reopening classrooms in March, the family wondered if it was worth the trouble.

“I feel I’ve hit my limit,” said Moira Allbritton, whose children, Lucy and Charlie, are enrolled in middle and high school, respectively, in San Diego Unified. “It’s too much. There seems to be a lack of consideration for all that families have to juggle.”

Lucy attends school in person Tuesday and Thursday, all day. Charlie attends virtually every day. Both Charlie and Lucy, who have mild autism, receive behavioral therapy at home three days a week. Charlie’s school offered in-person classes Monday and Tuesday, but at that point, the logistics were overwhelming.

Day one was fine, Moira Allbritton said. Day two, Lucy forgot a Covid-related form that was required for her to go on campus, so they had to return home to get it. That made Charlie late. By the time Lucy found the form and returned to campus, she was late. When Moira finally got home, she saw Lucy’s tablet charging in the living room — which meant another trip to school.

“It was a disaster,” Moira said. “By the end of the day, I felt like ‘Mother of the Year.’”

And after a year of distance learning, the return to campus has been jarring for Lucy. As much as she was looking forward to seeing her friends, the transition has caused her anxiety and a bit of trepidation, as she readjusts to life beyond her household.

Charlie, meanwhile, is enrolled in distance learning full time and doing well academically. After struggling with math in the fall semester, he finished with a B and is enjoying his current classes, especially art and U.S. history. He’s on track to graduate on time in spring 2022.

Credit: Courtesy of Moira Allbritton

Charlie and his older brother, whom he hadn’t seen in 8 months.

In the fall, Moira Allbritton hopes that the school district has a more coherent and equitable plan for schools that minimizes the disruption for families. She also would like to see the district devote more resources to helping students in special education catch up academically.

While school has been a rollercoaster, the family’s personal fortunes are looking up. The children’s father, who’s in the Navy and stationed on the East Coast, was able to come home for a few days in March. The Allbrittons’ older son, who lives in a group home in San Diego, was able to make his first overnight visit home since August as Covid restrictions lifted. And the puppy, Nutmeg, has recovered from surgery and is as boisterous as ever.

And of course, there’s the vaccine.

“Every time one of us gets a shot, I feel a little more empowered,” Moira said. “It gives me hope that eventually, we’ll get there.”

— Carolyn Jones

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  1. Greg L. 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Shameful that “safety” can be an issue for anyone at this point, given the proof established by science and a mountain of data. It’s been quite the successful campaign by most media outlets and assorted unions. Saying the schools are not safe requires a tortured definition of “safe” that has never been applied in responsible public policy.