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Huntington Beach elementary schools welcome students back on campus for first time since March

Monika Beranoba hugs her son, Jan, as she drops him off for the first day of in-person learning.
Monika Beranoba hugs her son, Jan, as she drops him off for the first day of in-person learning at Agnes L. Smith Elementary School in Huntington Beach on Monday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Cassie Orr said her two children were a bit apprehensive about returning to S.A. Moffett Elementary School in Huntington Beach on Monday.

“I think they kind of got used to being home all day with me,” Orr said of Clifford, a fifth-grader, and Charlotte, who is in third grade. “But I was very excited. I am ready for them to be out of the house, and I feel like our school district has done the best they can as far as planning and taking as many precautionary measures as possible. I’m comfortable with them going back and happy that they’re able to see their friends again.”

Orr, the PTSA president at Moffett, knows the work that Huntington Beach City School District officials and teachers have been undertaking to get kids back in the classroom. They have returned to class in the district’s six elementary schools — some as part of the morning session and some part of the afternoon session — for the first time since the novel coronavirus pandemic struck in March.

Children will be at school for 160 minutes four days a week; Wednesdays will still be distance-learning days. Peterson, Seacliff, Smith, Eader and Hawes were the other Surf City elementary schools that returned to classrooms on a windy Monday.

The district’s two middle schools — Dwyer and Sowers — return to in-person instruction on Nov. 2, with Huntington Beach Union High School District high schools — Edison, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach, Marina, Ocean View and Westminster — returning the following day.

The Laguna Beach Unified School District approved, by a 4-1 vote, a plan to have its secondary schools reopen for hybrid learning on Nov. 23.

Aniseh Spijkers dropped by Agnes L. Smith Elementary on Monday just before noon to drop off her fifth-grader, Darya, for school.

“They’ve taken tons of precautions, so hopefully it will go as well as planned,” Spijkers said. “They’ve got tiny classrooms, and they’re all sitting in plexiglass shields, and they’re all wearing their masks. But at least they’ll be near each other, which they haven’t been in eight months, so that’s good.”

Campuses also now have directional walkways, messaging signs and floor stickers and mobile handwashing stations.

Students wait outside the gate at Agnes L. Smith Elementary School on the first day of in-person learning.
Students wait outside the gate at Agnes L. Smith Elementary School on the first day of in-person learning.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

McKenzie Greer’s third-grader Nixon also attends Smith Elementary. She said she is excited that he gets to experience school on campus again, although she has mixed feelings about all of the safeguards in place.

The total number of coronavirus cases stands at 58,725 and the death toll is at 1,447, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.

“I’m very anti-doing this, this whole masks, plexiglass, everything,” Greer said. “I’m not OK with it. I don’t like sending my kids [to school] that way, but it is what it is. Let’s do it.

“I know that we need to be careful and things like that, but I wish there was a little more freedom for them when it comes to the school. But I’m happy they’re back.”

Smith Elementary Principal Maria Ashton, in her third year in charge, said bringing the school’s 650 students back to campus helps bring some sense of normalcy.

“I think the fact that we opened a little bit after the other districts, we were able to see what they did, we were able to modify our plans a little bit,” Ashton said. “At least here, things have gone incredibly smoothly, which I would have preferred to rushing into opening and then having things go wrong.”

HBCSD interim Supt. Greg Magnuson said in an email that he had been out visiting the district’s elementary schools Monday, and many parents are accompanying their students to school and engaging with school staff to better understand new school routines and health and safety precautions.

Students or staff with low-risk COVID-19 symptoms will be sent home but may return to school 24 hours after the symptoms’ resolution, according to guidelines released by the district. Those with high-risk symptoms, including cough, difficulty breathing and/or loss of taste and smell, will require evaluation by a healthcare provider.

The fast-moving Silverado fire broke out in Orange County on Monday and quickly grew to more than 7,000 acres. Southern California Edison says its equipment may be to blame. A second blaze started hours later in Corona and forced evacuations in Yorba Linda.

“Despite today’s high winds, local power outages and unhealthful air quality advisory, HBCSD students have returned to school in high numbers,” Magnuson said in the email. “Overall, it has been a smooth start with our elementary school morning sessions. Further, at the mid-day break our cleaning and disinfecting teams performed their work as per our plan and like the morning sessions, our afternoon students have returned to school in an otherwise seamless manner.”

Parents and students line up for the first day of in-person learning at Agnes L. Smith Elementary School.
Parents and students line up for the first day of in-person learning at Agnes L. Smith Elementary School.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Hawes Elementary PTSA president April Helliwell has two kids at Hawes; Bryce is in fifth grade and Blake in third grade. Helliwell said that Monday morning she helped organize a valet drop-off service in front of the school.

Last month, Helliwell organized a rally in front of the district office protesting the fact that kids weren’t back on campus yet. Elementary schools in the Fountain Valley, Ocean View and Newport-Mesa Unified school districts each had opened for hybrid learning by late September.

Helliwell said that after the rally, communication from the district to parents improved. She added that many of the parents she knows are proponents of the split a.m./p.m. system the district ultimately put in place.

“Everyone is very excited to have their kids back in the classroom,” Helliwell said. “And everyone is very pleased with the current schedule that they put together for us, this morning and afternoon cohort that is similar to what Fountain Valley is doing … The more face time that we can get with our teachers, the better. This way, our students are seeing their teachers four out of five days of the week.”

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