Finley Elementary School transitional kindergarten teacher Sandra Duran distributes hand sanitizer to TK student Abigail Salazar prior to the reopening of in-person instruction at Finley Elementary on Tuesday, March 9. | JULIO MORALES PHOTO
HOLTVILLE — For the first two months of any given school year, Finley Elementary School Principal Lupita Perez could typically be found greeting the campus’ transitional kindergarten and kindergarten students as they arrived each morning.
During those initial two months, her outreach efforts would also continue during the students’ recess periods, so that she could better memorize the young students’ names and faces.
However, because of COVID-19, Perez was prevented from continuing her longstanding tradition for the 2020-2021 school year, as classes got underway in late summer/early fall via distance learning.
On Tuesday, March 9, Perez finally got to greet some of those students face to face, armed with a pair of bright red pom-poms, when she cheered the first 10 TK students allowed to resume in-person instruction at the campus since its closure about a year ago.
“This year was a little difficult because I wasn’t able to make those connections,” Perez said. “So, I am jazzed about having them back on campus to learn their names and see their faces and really get to know each of them and their personalities.”
The 10 TK students who started in-person instruction at Finley were part of a larger group of TK and kindergarten students within the Holtville Unified School District who were admitted back onto their respective campuses after the district successfully petitioned the county and state to resume in-person instruction while the county remained in the state’s restrictive Purple Tier.
Besides the TK class at Finley, one kindergarten class was also allowed to resume onsite learning at Pine School and at the Freedom Academy charter school on Tuesday.
The district’s three campuses appear to have been the first schools among the Valley’s larger public school districts to resume in-person instruction since schools countywide were forced to close at the outset of the pandemic in early 2020.
With the county officially transitioning to the Red Tier of the state’s roadmap to recovery starting Wednesday, March 10, all local K-12 school will now be able to resume in-person instruction at their own discretion.
Aside from the excitement Perez said she felt about Tuesday’s milestone event, she also admitted to having some apprehension about any potential hiccups that could prompt campus and district officials to make last-minute adjustments to their reopening plans.
Nonetheless, she said she felt confident that the district’s preparations and established procedures and protocols would not only allow for a relatively smooth return to onsite instruction, but also guide any necessary response to any unintended circumstance.
“Our quote for today is, ‘It’s a new day and something new will happen,’” Perez said.
For the time being, the vanguard of HUSD students at Finley and Pine will attend classes for three hours a day, twice a week, with the intention of increasing the number of onsite learning days as time progresses, the district announced in a letter to parents and guardians on March 4. At Freedom Academy, students had their schedules established separately.
Additional TK and kindergarten classes will be allowed back onto Finley and Pine in the coming days. Following the weeklong spring break of April 2-9, plans call for the schools to start allowing a different grade level back onto their respective campuses each successive week, starting with first grade.
“That’s our hope,” Perez said. “It’s all tentative just because we don’t know what will happen from today to tomorrow.”
Much of Tuesday’s lesson plan at Finley Elementary was going to be devoted to the new procedures put in place to help maintain the health and safety of students and staff, said TK teacher Sandra Duran. One such lesson will advise students how to properly enter and exit their classroom.
And because the letter “S” is among the more challenging for beginning students to master, some of Tuesday’s lesson plan was devoted to that letter, as well, Duran said.
“I’ve been so thrilled about actually getting the kids into the classroom,” she said.
On top of learning how to properly enter and exit their classroom, returning students will also learn how to properly wash their hands, wear their face mask, and use facial tissues. Each student will also be given their own individual basket containing the requisite crayons, paper, pencils, and pencil sharpener.
At Finley, each grade level will have its designated entrance area. On Tuesday, bright checkered tape marked the spots on the sidewalk where students had to line up before entering campus.
“Every grade level will have a designated entrance area and a designated time for entry in order to minimize the amount of students we have gathered in one area,” Perez said. Times of entry are staggered in 15-minute intervals.
Even before lining up, Finley staff could be observed using a digital thermometer to take the temperatures of arriving students and making sure the students’ parents had completed the appropriate forms that would allow their children on campus each time class is in session.
The 10 TK students who showed up on March 9, accounted for 11 of the TK students whose parents had voluntarily registered for the in-person instruction. Those 11 students represented the total number of TK students who had enrolled in Duran’s class in general.
Despite feeling slightly nervous about her 5-year-old son Matthew’s first day of onsite instruction, because of a condition that places him at greater risk of serious illness, Adlemy Aguirre said she was equally confident that the protocols put in place by campus officials will help keep him safe and content.
“It is pretty nerve-wracking,” Aguirre said. “But I am excited because it’s a new experience that he’s been wanting to go through.”
Although 5-year-old Eylan Ventura has been receiving one-hour sessions of supplemental instruction three days of the week at Finley, his mother, Karen Gutierrez, said she is excited for him to take part in larger and more traditional classroom settings.
“He’s very excited as well,” Gutierrez said. “He likes the idea of coming back to school and seeing his friends.”
The Holtville Unified School District was among the first districts in the Valley to prepare and submit its COVID-19 Safety Plan, which is required by county and state public health officials to resume in-person instruction for TK-6 grade students.
“We’ve just always wanted to give people that option,” said HUSD Assistant Superintendent John-Paul Wells, who visited Finley Elementary on Tuesday morning to observe the reopening. “We’re really excited to finally be here and be able to provide that option.”