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‘You can’t see through the masks the smiles’: Students return to class in Laguna Beach

Kindergartners arrive for the first day of in-person learning at Top of the World Elementary School in Laguna Beach.
Kindergartners arrive on Monday for the first day of in-person learning at Top of the World Elementary School in Laguna Beach.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The first day of school is a milestone for young children and their parents.

It was time to rise and shine Monday morning, as the Laguna Beach Unified School District began welcoming students back to campus at Top of the World and El Morro, the district’s two elementary schools.

Many of the old standbys remained in a year that has been anything but traditional — the fresh haircuts, the oversized backpacks and the commemorative pictures.

After months of staying home together with their children because the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools in March, some parents found it hard to let go, and certainly not without a goodbye hug.

“It was a tough one,” Tiffany Frey, 44, said of sending her first-grade son, Maddox, 6, off to class at Top of the World Elementary School. “It’s hard because we have been together for so long. I’m excited for him, and he’s excited, too, but at the same time, the new normal was for everyone to be together.”

As the first step of the district’s staggered reopening plan, transitional kindergarten to second-grade students were first to resume in-person learning in the hybrid model. Students in grades three through five will come back on Wednesday.

The Laguna Beach Unified School District is set to implement hybrid learning for its elementary schools next week. Laguna Beach parents of secondary school students protested at Main Beach on Friday for their kids to have the option to return to in-person learning.

“You can’t see through the masks the smiles, but you can kind of sense it,” District Supt. Dr. Jason Viloria said. “A lot of excitement, and for a … kindergartner who has never been here, for the first time, making them feel welcome is really important.

“We thought it was important for us to do just a couple of grades the first couple of days, especially with our [kindergartners] being new, give them a chance to kind of settle in.”

Staff members Marlo Gensma, right, and Mariah Holliday, center, greet and pre-screen a kindergartner.
Staff members Marlo Gensma, right, and Mariah Holliday, center, greet and prescreen a kindergartner as students return for in-person learning at Top of the World Elementary School.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Belen Guillen, 41, brought her daughter, Frida, 5, to school as a kindergartner on Monday. She also has a son, Oliver, 8, a third-grader who will be back on campus later this week.

Facing the prospect of the new school year beginning as the previous ended with distance learning, Guillen said she formulated a plan to get her kids socialization. Six kids came to her house to participate in online learning together.

“During the summer, I prepared, and I reached out to families, friends and neighbors,” Guillen said. “I asked if they were interested in getting kids together, following our own protocol. We all got tested. We made sure we were cleaning, and that’s how we did it the first six weeks, I think, of school.

“It was a good transition for my kids to go from the summer to the cohorts at the house and then from there to school. It was a smooth transition for us.”

With a doll in her hands, Frida followed the red arrows on the sidewalk that told her where to go on her first day.

Principal Dr. Julie Hatchel directs a young student to his class at Top of the World Elementary.
Principal Dr. Julie Hatchel directs a young student to his class at Top of the World Elementary School.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Dr. Julie Hatchel, the new principal of Top of the World Elementary, said that a set of color-coded arrows were part of the measures taken to keep students distanced as they arrived at school. The red arrows apply to the kindergarten and first-grade students, the yellow arrows to those in second and third grade, and the blue arrows to kids in grades four and five.

All student desks have a plexiglass shield as part of the protections against COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Hatchel added that each grade now has its own recess, and school restrooms have a limited capacity of two. Hooks were installed on which students will place their lanyards to indicate how many students are in the restroom at a time.

At this Marin City school, those on campus are nagged to use hand sanitizer, while frazzled parents of home-schoolers pray that Zoom doesn’t freeze.

Monday marked the first time that Hatchel has seen her kids in person since she became principal.

“I have first-day pure joy is what I have,” Hatchel said. “It is so good to see the kids back. I’m smiling so big right now my teeth hurt, honestly. I think all of the enthusiasm and the energy here, we haven’t seen that for six months.”

Hatchel said that she feels safe and enumerated the reasons for that.

“We put a lot of effort into logistics and how we can get our kids safely on campus, how we can get them off, monitoring the masks, lots of extra people on supervision, [and] lots of communication with our teachers and families,” Hatchel explained.

Additionally, the district offered voluntary COVID-19 testing and plans to do it again.

School resource officer Cornelius Ashton directs a couple of students to their class at Top of the World Elementary School.
School resource officer Cornelius Ashton directs a couple of students to their class at Top of the World Elementary School.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“Last week, we did testing for students and tested about 200,” Viloria said. “We offered it to our TK-5 [students], tested about 200 of the little over 700-plus that are coming back at that level.

“We had three positive cases come out of that, so over the weekend, staff were working, contacting those parents, working with those parents to contact trace, and we let the county, obviously, know.”

While most people only experience mild or no symptoms at all from coronavirus infection, it can take roughly a week or so before severe illness strikes for those who do end up experiencing life-threatening symptoms.

Students in the virtual academy will have the option to return to school at the end of the first trimester.

LJ Cathcart, 43, walked his son, a first-grader, to school. Although distance learning was not ideal, Cathcart intimated his appreciation of the effort to keep education going given the unforeseen circumstances.

“Their online stuff was a little hard to keep [my son] focused,” Cathcart said. “He was having a hard time with it, but I thought it was great that they tried so hard. The school was trying to keep them going.

“None of us, as kids, have lived through anything like this, so it’s interesting that these kids have to experience this, and I thought Laguna Beach schools embraced it the best they could.”

District secondary schools have yet to see an on-campus return. Frey’s older son, Kellinger, 11, who is a sixth-grade student at Thurston Middle School, said he wants to go back, but he is fine with at least some of the accommodations at home.

“The one reason I do like doing school at home, it’s sort of silly, but I get good food for lunch,” Kellinger said.

Kindergartners walk past a marquee sign welcoming them back to Top of the World Elementary School.
Kindergartners walk past a marquee sign welcoming them back to Top of the World Elementary School.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Orange County COVID-19 stats

The Orange County Health Care Agency reported two deaths due to the coronavirus and 138 new infections in Tuesday’s numbers, taking the county’s totals during the pandemic to 1,289 fatalities and 54,898 cumulative cases.

There were 176 hospitalizations due to the virus, with 63 of those patients receiving treatment in intensive care units.

On Monday, the county surpassed 900,000 tests administered for the coronavirus. Another 5,286 tests were reported within the last day. The healthcare agency estimates that 49,141 people in the county have recovered after contracting the virus.

As far as the metrics for reopening as outlined by the state, the county has seven-day averages of 5.2 daily new cases per 100,000 residents and a testing positivity rate of 3.2%. Those numbers come with a seven-day lag.

Orange County remains in the second, red tier, the thresholds for which are between four and seven new daily cases per 100,000 residents and a testing positivity rate between 5% and 8%.

Below are the coronavirus case counts and deaths for select cities in Orange County:

  • Santa Ana: 10,553 cases; 283 deaths
  • Anaheim: 9,366 cases; 278 deaths
  • Huntington Beach: 2,431 cases; 76 deaths
  • Costa Mesa: 1,844 cases; 34 deaths
  • Irvine: 1,725 cases; 13 deaths
  • Newport Beach: 1,149 cases; 25 deaths
  • Fountain Valley: 519 cases; 17 deaths
  • Laguna Beach: 226 cases; fewer than five deaths

Here are the case counts by age group, followed by deaths:

  • 0 to 17: 3,944 cases; one death
  • 18 to 24: 8,280 cases; four deaths
  • 25 to 34: 11,795 cases; 19 deaths
  • 35 to 44: 8,732 cases; 36 deaths
  • 45 to 54: 8,863 cases; 108 deaths
  • 55 to 64: 6,564 cases; 185 deaths
  • 65 to 74: 3,308 cases; 259 deaths
  • 75 to 84: 1,871 cases; 274 deaths
  • 85 and older: 1,492 cases; 403 deaths

Updated figures are posted daily at occovid19.ochealthinfo.com/coronavirus-in-oc. For information on getting tested, visit occovid19.ochealthinfo.com/covid-19-testing.

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