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Coronavirus tests, fussing with masks, phonics: L.A.’s youngest students return to school

A child is tested for a coronavirus infection at Heliotrope Avenue Elementary School.
Kindergarten student Matteo Rodriguez, right, is tested for the coronavirus by medical technician Claire Chou at Heliotrope Avenue Elementary School.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Staff member Sylvia Vasquez was doing mandatory health checks on the first day of on-campus instruction at Heliotrope Avenue Elementary School, but students kept giving her the wrong answer when she tried to find out if they were healthy.

She’d ask how they were feeling, and the answer she kept getting was “Excited.”

Heliotrope, in the city of Maywood, was among 61 elementary and 11 early-education campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system, that opened Tuesday for the first time in more than a year, the inaugural wave for some 1,400 schools that will reopen by the end of the month. The youngest students returned Tuesday; other grades will follow as the week progresses.

Students seemed generally elated — and parents tempered their concerns with a sense of relief as they witnessed school staff follow detailed safety protocols. A few schools are scrambling with the problems of success — so many students are returning that the promised free child care is a challenge. But at other campuses, most students aren’t coming back yet — a reminder that many parents continue to worry over their safety.

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In-person classes have begun at L.A. schools, starting with the youngest students, who will be followed over the coming days by other grades.

At Heliotrope, Dora Barraza’s kindergarten class had 13 students. But at Noble Avenue Elementary School in North Hills, only one student appeared for the transitional kindergarten class of Rogelio Lopez, who has taught at the school for 26 years.

He gave the 5-year-old one-on-one math and reading lessons.

“You’re going to be the smartest kid in the school when we’re done with you,” Lopez joked with the boy.
Lopez asked him if he liked spending the morning at school with just the teacher, or if he would rather stay home and be on Zoom with friends.
The boy was emphatic: Zoom, he said.

Lopez spoke with the boy’s mom after school to relay his pupil’s feelings.

L.A. school board President Kelly Gonez said she’s optimistic that more students will return in coming weeks.

“Our communities have been really devastated by COVID,” Gonez said during a visit to Noble Elementary. “For some families, it’s a wait-and-see approach. They want to make sure that school is as safe as possible for their kids.”

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School board member Jackie Goldberg was so excited Tuesday that she bolted awake at 4:30 a.m. before heading over to Heliotrope. Some have faulted L.A. Unified’s gradual reopening pace and half-time on-campus schedule, but Goldberg said the cautious approach is part of building community confidence and making sure that campuses don’t have to close again for safety reasons.

L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner, who also was visiting campuses, said parents’ “greatest concern, despite the practices and protocols, is that someone leaves the household and brings back COVID to a multi-generational household — and another member of the family become sick.”

High school students recall their year at home as they prepare to return to campus for the first time since the pandemic began.

COVID-19 has proliferated in communities with high rates of poverty. At Noble Elementary, 94% of students are part of low-income families, compared with 21% of students at Beckford Charter for Enriched Studies, an L.A. Unified campus in Porter Ranch, a few miles to the northwest.

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Beckford expects to welcome 65% of its 580 students back this week, said Principal Shelly Brower, who also has nervous parents. She hosted “coffee with a principal” Zoom sessions twice a week over the last month: “We wanted parents to make an informed decision, and we wanted them to feel like they could bring us their concerns.”

Districtwide, about 40% of elementary students are set to return. The numbers are much lower for students in middle and high schools, where parents appear to be less satisfied with the return-to-campus format. Students returning to secondary schools will be assigned to one supervised classroom all day, where they will take their courses online.

At Heliotrope, about 1 in 3 students are expected to return initially.

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“I have some concerns,” said parent Fabiola Hermosillo. “But seeing how well organized they have it now, I felt confident to bring him back,” she said of her son Jesus, 6, who was going through his health screening as Hermosillo watched.

It also reassured her that the school would be conducting coronavirus tests of students every week, in addition to the initial test before stepping back into a classroom.

Hermosillo’s second-grade daughter Stephanie was looking forward to her first day back — scheduled for Wednesday, per L.A. Unified’s staggered restarting schedule.

“I get to see my friends,” Stephanie said. “Of course, I won’t get to touch them, but I get to see them. I’ve always, like, seen them on-screen, but never in real life.”

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The return to school is a relief for Heliotrope parent Eduardo Rodriguez. Although his English isn’t perfect, he’s the only English-speaker in his household, and it’s been hard to help his daughter Andry, whose language learning has suffered from the lack of interaction with other children in her kindergarten class.

Out of desperation, Rodriguez had been trying to help Andry during school hours over Facetime from one of his two jobs.

At Ninth Street Elementary School downtown, Principal Jenny Guzman-Murdock worries about her students. Pre-pandemic, the school had about 310 students, 98% of them from low-income families. The current enrollment is about 250. She was expecting 27 of the youngest students Tuesday, but only 12 made it. The school is continuing outreach efforts.

The 12 students jumped right into their classwork. Lilia Guerrero’s five kindergarteners took turns working out syllables with classmates through hand and body gestures as they learned to blend sounds associated with letters.

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When asked who was excited to be back, Camila Huerta, blue bow in her hair, raised her hand: “Me!” “Me!”

A boy replied that he wanted to learn “so much.”

Some students struggled to keep masks over noses and had to be reminded.

“It’s the very first day of kindergarten, if we really think about it,” Guerrero said. “It’s a big day.”

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The same was true at Maurice Sendak Elementary School in North Hollywood, where at about 11 a.m., parents had lined up to retrieve students from the three-hour in-person morning session. Some schools also offer in-person classes in the early afternoon.

Cynthia Nuñez’s 5-year-old daughter used to cry about attending pre-K before the pandemic threw everything online. But on Tuesday, Johanna happily recounted dancing and making a crown.

It’s been hard for Nuñez’s three school-age children to concentrate on schoolwork at home. The 10- and 13-year-old also will be returning, she said.

“Here, they are in the classroom, focused,” Nuñez said. “They can see their teacher, and they can learn better.”


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