kindergarten teacher

Kindergarten teacher Maile Oca is ready to see her students in person at John Muir Academy in Long Beach on Friday, March 26. Oca made the sign and others to hang on the fence for students to see as they enter campus.

There are no long tables where kids can learn to share crayons. No cozy reading chairs. No bookcases. No rugs where everyone will gather for story time.

Instead, Maile Oca’s kindergarten classroom at Long Beach’s John Muir Academy has just seven desks, each with its own dry erase marker and board, and 10-frame counting tool, along with individual buckets of playtime items, like cans of play dough and coloring books.

Oca, 50, knows the two-and-a-half months of having students back in the classroom — starting today, Monday, March 29, with those in transitional kindergarten through fifth grade — won’t be like any other school year. But it’s the first step in finding a new normal.

Unlike her students, Oca has been in the classroom one day a week since October, and the prospect of having students roam the hallways once more, she said, is exciting.

“To hear the kids in the classroom, to be able to hear kids’ voices — it’s so quiet,” Oca said. “It’s weird to look in the quad and never ever see a kid walk by. It feels like a ghost town here.”

Oca and her colleagues in the Long Beach Unified School District’s elementary schools shared similar sentiments in recent interviews about in-person instruction resuming Monday. While anxiety about the change — with new responsibilities, such as mask-wearing and social distancing — was a common theme, teachers said any concerns they have are outweighed by the benefits the kids will receive from being able to learn in the classroom.

Long Beach schools, along with most other schools across the state and country, shut down their campuses last March to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus. At the time, officials estimated the closures would last about a month.

It’s now been more than a year. And during that time, experts have documented the potential learning loss that some students, particularly younger and poorer students, have experienced because of the switch to virtual instruction.

One study of California schools, published earlier this year by the nonpartisan research center PACE, found that learning among fourth graders from low-income families was 7% slower during the pandemic compared to prior years, while other fourth graders learned 5% faster, for an overall gap of 12%. The researchers found similar gaps through eighth grade.

While not all Long Beach elementary school students will return to in-person learning this school year — about 45% of students will come back to campus on Monday, according to district spokesman Chris Eftychiou — some teachers said the students who will come back may be the ones who need it most.

For fifth grade teacher Derek Lefkowith, 43, about 13 of his 34 students will return to the classroom. And when scrolling through the names of those kids, he said, he noticed that many of them are the ones who have seemed to be the least engaged in virtual learning.

“I know the kids who are coming back to school are the ones I’ve seen less of online,” he said, “so personally, I’m excited about finally getting face-to-face and working with them personally, not on the computer, because some kids are thriving on the distance learning, and some kids aren’t.”

While kids have had a hard time across the board during the pandemic, Lefkowith said, the fact that the ones who are struggling most will be the ones in the classroom could help start to even out some of the gaps that formed over the last year.

The switch to offering in-person learning looks different on different campuses, but at John Muir Academy, students will go to class in the morning and have individual assignments to complete at home in the afternoon. Students who are sticking with online learning will be taught live in the afternoon, with their own assignments to complete in the morning.

It’s a big switch for those going back to the classroom — or, in the case of kindergarten students like Oca’s, coming to the classroom for the first time — and some folks have wondered if making the change so late in the school year makes sense.

But teachers said even a small amount of in-person learning can make a big difference for some students. And the shorter time period might make it a good test run to see what a bigger reopening could look like in the fall, if coronavirus restrictions remain necessary.

“Even with a month or two in front of us, kids can make some serious progress,” Lefkowith said. “So I don’t think it’s too late, and we’re still teaching. It’s not like we’re coming out of the cave and back to the classroom, never having seen these kids. I think we’ve established the relationship necessary, so it doesn’t really matter where we’re teaching from. We’ve connected.”

Oca agreed, even as she acknowledged that some of the changes from previous years — like her comparatively barren classroom and the fact that she won’t be able to hug her students — feel like a loss.

“Some of our kids — we don’t know what’s happening at home,” she said. “Maybe they really need a hug today. Sometimes you have a bad morning, and you really want a hug, and I just can’t do that at this point, so that makes it a little bit sad for me.”

Still, she said, returning to the classroom will be a change for the better.

“I’m excited just to be back in the classroom,” Oca said, “and to be able to bounce ideas off of colleagues again and see the kids’ faces and watch their eyes light up.

“Watching their faces light up when they realize they can do things that they didn’t believe they can do is super rewarding,” she added, “and it’s not really the same online.”

And while the kids may not be able to play together or give their teacher a hug, that glint of recognition and excitement when they learn something new, Oca said, will make all the limitations of the health- and safety-conscious classroom worth it.

Reopening Plan

Long Beach Unified has created a staggered schedule for when students will return to campuses, now that Los Angeles County has moved into the second-most restrictive red-tier of the state’s reopening plan. Here are the dates students in the different grade levels will return:

Monday, March 29: Elementary school students, TK to fifth grade.

April 19: High school seniors.

April 20: Middle schoolers, grades six to eight.

April 26: High school freshmen, sophomores and juniors.

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