By: Sarah Carr
Students may be starting the 2021–2022 school year with some nontraditional school supplies in their backpacks, with masks and hand sanitizer joining notebooks and No. 2s as classroom essentials. But Pasadena students are looking forward to a school year spent learning in person, alongside friends, and peppered with all the good stuff: extracurricular activities, college prep, and plenty of community activities.
For Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD), as well as many private schools, the 2021–2022 school year started in August, just a few weeks after state, national, and local health advisories and protocols were announced. For all schools, keeping students safe is the No. 1 priority, with a return to normalcy following close behind. From masking up to making sure students transition smoothly back to the classroom, here’s how local schools are welcoming the new school year.
PUTTING SAFETY FIRST
“We are back to school, fully in person, five days a week, with safety measures in place,” says Hilda Ramirez Horvath, communications manager for PUSD. “The state of California, the CDC, and the local public health department agree that when you have multiple layers of safety in place, you can open up safely.” Those layers align with CDC guidelines, which means universal masking indoors for students, administrators, and teachers, irrespective of vaccination status, plus recommended vaccination for all eligible students age 12 and up. “We understand it’s time to get back to in-person learning, and some of the necessary safety measures were already put in place during the pandemic,” Horvath says. “Masks, signage, hand washing, access to vaccines and testing—these are all things we started last school year, and we have commercial-grade ventilation in each of our classrooms and common rooms.”
One of the big differences between this fall’s fresh start and last spring’s classroom returns is capacity. As stated by the California Department of Public Health, universal masking in schools allows students to interact without physical-distancing requirements, so 100% of students can return to the classroom at the same time—a big step toward reclaiming the educational and social experiences students were accustomed to before the pandemic began. Another difference is that last spring’s return to schools functioned as a preseason warm-up—teachers, students, and administrators are now returning with an all-star understanding of COVID-19 safety protocols.
“In all respects, there’s a lot of positivity going into this year,” says Cheryl Stern, director of development at High Point Academy. “Aside from basic safety measures like masking, distance while eating, and stable cohorts, for the most part it’s going to hopefully feel like a really normal school year.” As a school for kindergarten through eighth grade, the majority of High Point Academy’s students are under 12 and not eligible for vaccination, so the school will maintain two stable cohorts per grade as a safety measure, similar to when students returned to campus last spring. This year, however, each pair of grade-level cohorts will be able to mingle and socialize together. “I think what everyone is craving is some normalcy,” Stern says, “and I think that we’re getting there.”
EMBRACING A NEW NORMAL
At Village Christian, a kindergarten through grade 12 school in Sun Valley, Head of School Tom Konjoyan says health protocols and procedures will still be in place, but so will the parts of the school day students missed out on last year. “Kids will be in classrooms, and athletics, arts, pep rallies, and dances will all be back. Those are the things that students really look forward to, and I know the students, parents, and teachers are all very excited about that,” he says. “These years are such an important time in kids’ lives, and the school setting becomes part of their community. Having that community back will be very important for everybody’s well-being.”
Returning to classrooms, teachers, and friends is exciting, but reentry after over a year of mostly learning at home can also come with emotional speed bumps (just ask any adult now returning to an office). “It’s going to be a real transition for students to come back to in-person learning after spending so long in isolation,” Ramirez Horvath says. “At PUSD schools, we’re taking the whole-person approach. That means providing cognitive, emotional, and social support to students when they return to campus.” PUSD has adopted a student wellness policy around mental health, and will provide kids with social-emotional learning exercises and an online wellness studio to promote a smooth transition back to the classroom.
STAYING FUTURE FOCUSED
“College-bound from kindergarten” is one half of Village Christian’s motto, and Konjoyan and the school’s faculty are thrilled that the graduating class of 2022 will close out the last year of concentrations—the school’s experience for high school students—on campus. “Concentrations are like a mini college major program for high school kids,” Konjoyan says. “It helps them get a sense of what they might want to do academically when they get to college, and what kind of career they might want to explore.” The program begins in ninth grade with personality and career-aptitude testing, and a key component of the senior experience is visiting corporations like Warner Bros., Disney, and Google to learn about opportunities. “The program culminates in a senior project, where students do an internship, write a research paper, and do a presentation. This gives them a head start in terms of pursuing an area of academic and career interest before they hit college,” Konjoyan says. “We’re excited for those opportunities to open back up for our students.”
“We’re seeing the new school year as an opportunity to reset, reengage, and reignite,” Ramirez Horvath says. “Our approach is one of acceleration. It’s an acceleration of learning, which includes more individualized instruction, as well as digital content.” Prior to the pandemic, PUSD invested in becoming a one-to-one district, which put a device in the hands of every student in every school—a decision that became critically important during the pandemic and will continue to support students opting for independent study (as required by the state of California) rather than a return to the classroom.
Younger students—and their parents—will be back to learning social skills in tandem with their studies. Stern is also mom to a High Point student. “As both a parent and a staff member, I’m so excited,” Stern says. “Having so much separation last year felt counterintuitive to the way you try to build a cohesive, welcoming, warm feeling among the students.” With interactions less limited and masks replacing social distancing, learning to be a good classmate and friend has fewer barriers. “With last year’s smaller cohorts, it was hard,” Stern says. “You tell your child they need to include everyone and open up their circle to other friends, but suddenly COVID hit, and it was like, ‘Nope, can’t play with those kids. You have to stay over here.’ That’s a difficult switch to make.”
REVIVING COMMUNITY CONNECTION
Last year, Konjoyan spent early mornings playing kickball with students when before-school care was cancelled due to COVID-19. PUSD superintendents, carpenters, and secretaries packaged 10,000 device chargers so students could use their computers at home during quarantine. Many schools held all-hands-on-deck temperature checks for arriving students last spring. Tales like these from the last two academic years speak volumes about the ways that hybrid learning pulled teachers, students, and staff together.
But now learning communities are excited about safely getting back together. “This is just going to be a really fun year for all of our school events,” Stern says. “We may need to rethink some traditions to make sure that we’re keeping everyone safe, but I get the sense that everyone is just itching to be able to come back together as a community.” For Konjoyan, Village Christian’s annual (flameless) take on a traditional bonfire—called The Nonfire—is a symbolic return to community. “When we have that event,” he says, “We become like a small town right here in Los Angeles.”