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The “goodbye” between parents and their children on the first day of school is never easy. But it was particularly hard Monday at Betty Reid Soskin Middle School to return for the first time since the pandemic, especially during a surge from the delta variant.
In the East Bay community of El Sobrante, parents watched anxiously — some even in tears — from outside the gate Monday while their children walked to their classes. As a safety precaution, parents weren’t allowed on to the campus to walk their children to their classroom.
Despite the nerves, Beverly Baluyot, whose daughter was entering sixth grade, and other parents were glad their children were finally able to return to campus.
“I’m excited for her and nervous for her at the same time,” she said. “Plus, with this pandemic, there’s so much uncertainty, but we’re trying our best to stay safe.”
Angelina Sexton, whose son was starting eighth grade, was less enthusiastic. Her concerns for her son’s safety, as well as his ability to make friends and fit in, outweighed her excitement. She said she felt as though the district was not ready to resume in-person instruction.
“I get to this gate, and I’ve got to just drop my son off not knowing what the plan is, how the schedule is based, nothing,” she said. “I can’t wait until school is out today to see how things went. How do we feel? I’m hoping that he can be more sociable and make some friends here because he’s never been here.”
Sexton said her son is an “introvert,” and she was worried he will struggle to make friends and get comfortable in the new school environment. Not being able to walk him to his first class made the experience even harder on her.
Despite some anxiety, “You can feel the excitement in the air from the students,” said Kenneth “Chris” Hurst, the district’s new superintendent. “Just the sheer fact that kids are here, and they’re interacting with one another is a positive for me. It took us a lot to get the safety measures in place to get here.”
Hurst added that it was the district’s policy is to have parents drop off their children at the gate outside of campus in order to limit the number of adults on campus and minimize the chances of spreading Covid.
During the next week, West Contra Costa Unified schools will be focusing on addressing parents’ anxieties over the return to school, said LaResha Martin, the chief academic officer. Teachers will be having one-on-one conversations with families to talk to them about their hopes for the school year and what their concerns may be.
For students, the first few weeks of school will focus on relationships, team-building activities and social-emotional learning, Martin said. Social-emotional learning is education based on helping students develop emotional skills like self-awareness and navigating healthy relationships vital to success in school and life. For West Contra Costa Unified, some common social-emotional learning exercises will be journal writing and so-called circle activities, in which teachers have students form a circle and share their names, talk about returning to campus, what they are happy about or something they enjoyed about being at home during the pandemic.
“We’re focused on rebuilding relationships first and foremost,” Martin said.
At Nystrom Elementary School in Richmond, Dorcas Sims’ fifth grade class of 29 students formed a circle and played a name game: They went around the room and said their names, then picked a gesture to go along with their name, such as a thumbs up or a dance move. The class would then say their classmates’ names and repeat the gesture.
This circle activity was one of the many ways teachers plan to build classroom relationships throughout the year, said Nystrom principal Jamie Allardice. During distance learning, every class would begin with a 20-to-30 minute “morning meeting” of activities like this. Allardice said the morning meetings will continue in person throughout the year.
Daily check-ins will also be practiced at high schools, Martin said. It may not be a circle, but teachers may have students write in their journals about their hopes and dreams, or something they miss about being at school and share them aloud.
These activities are critical not only to students meeting their classmates, but also to calm students who may still be feeling anxious about returning to campus.
“It’s important to make sure that we reassure our students that we’re here for them, that we’re supporting them and that this is all about re-establishing those relationships and those norms of being back in the classroom setting,” Martin said.
Editor’s Note: EdSource tracks the developments in the West Contra Costa Unified School District as part of a special project to illustrate some of the challenges facing urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.
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