ORCUTT, Calif. -- St. Joseph High School welcomed its first students back onto campus in more than seven months on Tuesday.
On a cool, overcast morning, just over 100 freshman arrived before 8 a.m. to begin all-day in-class instruction.
According to principal Erinn Dougherty, St. Joseph is now the first large-scale high school in either Northern Santa Barbara County or San Luis Obispo County to reopen with students on campus on a full-time basis.
"We have been very prayerfully and carefully planning for the return of students," said Dougherty. "We're overjoyed that we've been blessed to welcome students back on our campus and we feel like we're able to have students back on campus because of our community engagement and the entire community. It took an entire village to make this happen."
Dougherty pointed out the school has been meticulously planning for this days since the start of the pandemic last March.
"We developed a task force with members of the community, business members, physicians, educators from public sector, and our own teachers here to develop a return to school safety plan," said Dougherty. "We took the California Department of Public Health guidelines, the WHO guidelines, the CDC guidelines, and the CDE guidelines, and we operationalized every single line item to say how we were going to ensure we met those guidelines at our school."
The St. Joseph school safety plan is over 50 pages long, and includes a comprehensive list of safety measures.
"I feel really safe because there's one-way hallways, we keep our masks on, we go through safety protocol every morning, and we sanitize desks, tables, our hands every time we walk into a classroom, everytime we leave," said freshman Caden Cucccia.
The school has also gone high-tech to help make sure students, staff and faculty are healthy when they arrive each day.
"The students fill out an app regarding their health and wellness and their preparedness to come to school. If they pass the questionnaire, then they get a pass sign," said Dougherty. "They walk up to their designated check in spot, and show their app. If their app is completed, and says pass, they are allowed to go to the thermal temperature scanner. The thermal temperature scanner has facial recognition. It recognized the student. It recognizes their general core temperature. They will get a sticker with a date on it that allows them to proceed to their designated class space."
Each desk now includes a three-sided plexiglass sneeze guard to further protect students, who must all wear a mask while inside classrooms.
"In these unprecedented times, there is no such thing as safe, but we can be safer, and we can mitigate our risk," said Dougherty. "Every time you leave the house during COVID-19, there is a risk associated, but we wanted to ensure that we're not taking unnecessary risks and we're creating the safest campus that we possibly can to meet the educational, social and emotional needs of our students."
For many students and parents, there was a sense of joy to be able to finally step foot inside a classroom, rather than receive instruction virtually.
"It's good to be back," said freshman Jeremiah Philson. "It's good to be off Zoom and back in the classroom. It's a lot better to have in-class instruction than through a screen. I think it's a lot better to get interacting with other students as well."
"I definitely enjoy it a lot more, just to see my friends and teachers in person," said freshman Avary Cain. "It's definitely different than normal school due to social distancing, but just seeing my friends in person, it's definitely a lot better than seeing them on screen."
While freshman were back on Tuesday, the rest of the student body will return this week in phases.
Sophomores will come back tomorrow, juniors on Thursday, and seniors on Friday, so by the end of the week, there will be 420 students back on campus
"We wanted to invite them back in a staggered way so that we can ensure safety protocols that we've planning for seven months," said Dougherty. "We wanted to ensure that we had thought of everything, so by bringing the students on grade-by-grade, we can ensure that we can see any problems in the system or any problems in the plan and we can correct them on a smaller scale."
She also pointed out there are some students that will remain at home and continue distance learning, either for the rest of the school year, or if they are feeling ill.
"We have in every single classroom cameras or iPads mounted so that students are able to access the learning and curriculum from home, just as easily as they would, so you can be a preferential distance learner and be home all year or you can wake up and not feel well and decide to stay home," said Dougherty.