SANTA MARIA, Calif. -- The Santa Maria Joint Union High School District (SMJUHSD) has reopened its campuses for students, starting limited in-class instruction for seniors Tuesday morning.
For hundreds of students, it marked the first time many of them had walked on campus in more than a year.
"I'm overwhelmed with happiness," said Pioneer Valley High School senior Sara Camacho. "I'm shocked that we even got this opportunity to open back again and I'm just really excited that I get to see everyone again."
"It's exciting," said Pioneer Valley senior Liam Haas. "It's nice to meet all of my friends and to just be here and to be actually learning things and not looking at a screen."
Today's reopening included all four of its high schools, including Santa Maria, Righetti, Pioneer Valley and Delta.
"We've been looking forward to this day for a long time," said SMJUHSD Superintendent Antonio Garcia. "It's been over a year that our students have been learning from home in our distance learning model, and so to have the seniors back today is just a big day for all of us. We have been looking forward to giving them this option and have at least their last two months of their educational experience here on campus."
At Pioneer Valley, students were greeted with huge cheers while walking through a huge inflatable tunnel.
Principal Shanda Herrera said she expected about 158 seniors on campus today out of 568 total. The rest of the students not in class today were online receiving instruction through distance learning.
"The kids need it," said Herrera. "I want them to have some closure. This is their senior year and they have been out of school for a year. I think they deserve to finish strong, so we want to give them that opportunity to be together and let them know that they are celebrated."
The district is now using a hybrid model, with students receiving instruction through a combination of in-class and distance learning.
"We are doing a shortened schedule," said Herrera. "We are going to have seniors only. They're going to do four classes today, and they'll do three classes tomorrow. We're going to split it up by the alphabet to make sure we're all Covid safe and friendly."
Pioneer Valley students with last names A-L now have on-class instruction on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while thos with last names M-Z are at school on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Students also have the option of remaining at home to continue instruction through distance learning.
All students will receive instruction through distance learning on Mondays.
Grade levels 9-11 are continuing to use distance learning through Zoom.
SMJUHSD Superintendent Anthony Garcia said the district will evaluate how the current model is working before allowing students in the lower grade levels to return.
"Once the seniors are in session for at least a week or two, then we are going to monitor that possibility on a weekly basis," said Garcia. "We would like to be able to bring all of our students back, but we want to make sure that we're doing this in a safe manner, and so we're going to continue to look at the data, and we're going to assess the way in which things are functioning here on a regular for our seniors and then make those decisions moving forward."
For the seniors, returning back to campus provides them the chance to finish the final few weeks of their high school career in as normal capacity as can be allowed under the current circumstances.
"I honestly was a little sad," said Camacho, speaking about spending most of her senior year at home. "I was, what about my senior experience? Am I even going to get that? I'm just happy that we're doing this, that we're open again, and I can get those few last memories with safety precautions that the school is providing."
In order to reopen for students, the school district emphasizes it is taking every possible step in adhering to local, state and federal health guidelines.
"We have our Covid safety plan," said Garcia. "We have a reopening plan that we had to put together. That took a lot of work. There's a lot of elements to this. We want to make sure that we have a safe environment for our students and our staff, and so there's a lot of moving parts to that, a lot of investment in time, resources and energy to make sure that we have ultimately the safest environment possible for everyone that's going to be on campus."
To view the SMJUHSD COVID-19 Prevention Program, click here.