Hope, apprehension run high as LBUSD elementary schools prepare to open Monday

Sunday will mark 380 days since the LBUSD closed its campuses and kept them largely shuttered since as a precaution against COVID-19. Monday, however, will break that streak.

That’s when 14,000 K-5 students return to campus, in what’s being held up as a hopeful sign of the approaching end of the pandemic in Long Beach, a city constructed around public education with 70,000 LBUSD students and 12,000 LBUSD employees.

“I am thrilled that thousands of our students will be back in our classrooms with their teachers,” LBUSD Superintendent Jill Baker said in an interview this week. “The arc of the pandemic has not been in sight for so long. It’s been incredibly energizing to feel that we can see at least we’re on the downside of that arc, and a restart to a lot of the things that have been missing in our community for a year.”

First-grade teacher Debra Simmons works on her computer as she prepares for her students to return to school for the first time in over a year. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova

It’s been a challenging year in so many ways. The LBUSD Board of Education meetings have been protested by teachers and parents, and public testimony has been flooded with hundreds of impassioned and often contradictory pleas to reopen schools faster or slower. Student grades have suffered. The district began the school year looking at a budget shortfall that had many worried about layoffs, but thanks to several rounds of aid it enters next week prepared to not only avoid layoffs but actually give raises to its employees.

The process of navigating ever-changing state and county requirements surrounding reopenings has been lengthy and fraught. The logistical lift of opening classrooms for elementary students next year has been enormous in and of itself. LBUSD spokesperson Chris Eftychiou said the district has mobilized 5,000 face shields, 2,000 boxes of gloves, 55,000 cloth mask, 14,000 bottles of hand sanitizer, 10,000 packets of wipes, 30,000 lanyards for face masks and 1,400 touch-free thermometers in preparation.

This week provided a soft reopening, with most elementary schools hosting preview events for each grade, allowing students and parents to come see classrooms, review procedures for the half-day schedule next week, and, in some cases, undergo the screening and testing process that the state currently requires until the case rates drop.

Teachers Association of Long Beach executive director Chris Callopy said he’s heard every emotion imaginable from elementary teachers.

“LBUSD staff at all levels have been working triple time to be ready for schools to open for in-person instruction,” he said. “LBUSD has never been dry-docked for over a year before … our members are reporting unfettered optimism, realism, and pessimism on how all these moving parts will come together.”

Fifth-grade teacher Lisa Ruggiero looks for pins as she sets up her class. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

The district’s history runs back to 1885, 12 years before the city of Long Beach incorporated. In that time, the district has never done two things it will do for the rest of the school year beginning Monday. First, bringing students back on campus after a year away from in-person instruction and, second, running two curriculum simultaneously as half of its students remain at home, being taught by the same teachers in the classroom with the students who return.

All of that will happen while teachers are also navigating the challenges of enforcing new classroom rules, and teaching during a pandemic. While many have taken to social media to express gratitude for the opportunity to be vaccinated early in the process, many have also expressed the mix of conflicting emotions felt by Prisk Elementary School teacher Lisa Ruggiero.

“I’m apprehensive because not everything we were told is going to happen is actually happening,” said Ruggiero. “At the same time, I’m excited to see my kids. I’m very excited to see the ones that are coming back.”

Ruggiero said that some of the mitigation strategies teachers were promised have been “loosening and relaxing,” including issues with ventilation systems. She said that she and her colleagues have done their best to roll with the punches of the last 12 months by doing things like buying equipment to be able to teach virtually and making up new curriculums that fit into half-day live instruction schedules. But her excitement at a return to in-person instruction with kids in front of her is cut with anxiety about the uncertainty of this last stage of the pandemic.

“I’m vaccinated, but my husband is not,” she said. “I don’t know that I can’t take something home to my family, so that underlying concern is there. We’re going to wash our hands and wear our masks and have the screenings, but everyone is worried about taking it home to their families. We’re so close, but we can’t relax until we make it across the finish line. There’s an element of cross our fingers and hope for the best.”

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