CHULA VISTA, Calif. – There was pumping music, dancing teachers and lots of hugs as one of the first public schools in California opened fully to in-person learning Wednesday, marking a major milestone in the fight to return to normalcy in the nation's most populated state, though the masked students served as a reminder that the coronavirus pandemic is still far from over.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond welcomed students at Enrique S. Camarena Elementary School in Chula Vista, south of San Diego near the Mexican border.
“Bienvenidos! Welcome back to school! That’s it for my speech," Thurmond said to laughter and applause from students and parents gathered on the school's playground. “I'm just here to say we're so proud of you. This is one of the first schools in all of the state of California to be back, and you're showing everyone in California and in our nation that we learn well, we stay safe and we support our students and families."
Thurmond tried to calm concerns about the timing of Chula Vista Elementary School District's return to full-day, in-person instruction amid rising numbers of COVID-19 infections from the more contagious delta variant, including among younger kids, for which a vaccine has not yet been approved.
Thurmond said he was confident that masks, hand-washing and frequent testing of staff and students were enough to allow schools to reopen safely.
With COVID-19 cases soaring nationwide, school districts across the U.S. are navigating a tricky path forward amid mounting pressure to get kids back into classrooms full time this school year despite people's growing fatigue of mask-wearing, vaccine rules and social distancing requirements.
California was one of the slowest states in the country to reopen its public schools after the pandemic forced millions into online learning for more than a year. When schools did reopen, most districts went to a hybrid model that had students go to class in person only a couple of days a week.
California public schools experienced a sharp decline in enrollment this year in part because many parents put their children in private schools that were offering in-person learning.
Thurmond promised that public schools can come back even better if everyone does their part to keep kids in classrooms.
The California Department of Public Health said all students and staff should wear masks, issuing a stricter order than what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. The federal agency has said masks are necessary indoors only for those who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19.
The American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday recommended universal masking in schools, even for those who are vaccinated.
Some parent groups have protested California's school mask requirement, and at least one has threatened to sue. Some districts say they will not enforce the rule, and the state has not indicated there will be penalties for those who ignore the order.
Thurmond commended the Chula Vista district's safety measures, including making rapid COVID-19 tests available to every student regularly. He said that is key until a vaccine is made available for children under 12, which could happen this fall.
“Those are precautions that will keep us safe, and that will keep our schools open,” Thurmond told reporters after visiting the school.
The desire to return to learning in person was on full display Wednesday. Of the roughly 1,000 students, some 952 signed up to return, Principal Debra McLaren said.
“It's exhilarating," McLaren exclaimed, dancing to Bobby McFerrin's “Don't Worry, Be Happy" blasting from speakers as students and their families posed for pictures in front of the school on a sunny morning.
Among them was 6-year-old Ethan, who proudly held a sign that introduced himself to his new school, which he did not have a chance to do in kindergarten because lessons were online.
The sign listed the things he loved, including the Avengers, guava and reading.
Roxana Preciado said being required to wear a mask is a small sacrifice if it allows her daughter to go to school every day.
“If we all follow the rules, we'll all be OK," she said.