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Even wearing masks, CUSD students were happy to be back

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

On Wednesday I trod the familiar sidewalks I’ve marched for 13 of the past 14 years (with one dark year courtesy of COVID), my youngest child in tow, making our way to Condit Elementary School for the first day of school.

My ex and I were walking our son Everett to sixth grade on the mercifully cool morning, for our family’s very last first day of school at Condit.

Three of my four kids spent their entire elementary years there. I’ve been volunteering in their classrooms all that time, Friday rituals that were always the highlight of my week.

I’ve made lifelong friendships, been through friends’ and my own hardships, and have been a staunch ally and defender when folks made offhand remarks about Condit’s unfounded reputation for placing too much emphasis on academics and not enough on art and play. Whatever. Condit rules. Eat it, Sycamore. Just kidding. Mostly.

Wednesday’s first day crowd was unlike any I’d seen. Masks were near universal among the 600 or so parents, caregivers and students waiting for school to begin. In years past we walked our offspring right up to their classrooms on first days. This year—for good reason of course—nobody but school employees was allowed past the entry threshold.

Talk among the throngs ranged from exhilarating reunions and rekindled friendships, all the way to fears that we might all one day soon be back to quarantines and online school if the Delta variant or some other new wave of COVID-19 nastiness has its way with us.

Joy, though, was the overriding sentiment.

“It’s exciting!” said Condit Principal Christine Malally. She went on to correct me in my assertion that it was the first first day of school in a year-and-half. “We’ve had a lot of first days,” she said, reminding me Claremont schoolkids were back to in-person classes in April for the tail end of the 2020-2021 academic year. “But this one [is] a little bit more traditional. It feels exciting. Obviously there’s a little bit of nervousness, because we haven’t been back in so long, but yeah, we’re excited.”

Harriet Lee, grandmother of three Condit kids—twin kindergarten grandsons Andrew and Alexander, and second-grader Alyssa—drove out from the Antelope Valley to continue her lovely tradition of walking her grandkids to their first day of school. Asked what the vibe was like at her grandkids’ house this morning, that word popped up again.

“Excited,” she said. “They got up, they got dressed, they got their new shoes on, they packed their backpacks and they were ready to go.”

Apparently the twins have a reputation, at least among their family.

“The boys are quite excited to be in school, but the teachers are going to have their hands full!” Ms. Lee said.

Cecil Wright, father of Brandon, a seven-year-old about to have his first day in Karen Kellner’s second grade class, felt like many parents I talked to: Happy, but missing the rituals of the past. “We don’t get to walk him all the way in,” he said, “but it’s still good to be here.”

Fraternal twins Lilly and William Seward-Bourne, also seven, were all smiles, but surprisingly nonchalant as they waited to be let on campus for their first day of first grade with beloved longtime Condit teacher Sara Loeffler.

“They’ve been in school since they were two,” said their dad, Walter Seward. “They were walking up and I said, ‘Hey, are you guys excited?’ and they were like, ‘Not really.’ It’s just because they’ve already been through it so many times.”

Talk of the virus came up, and Mr. Seward said he was prepared for the possibility of change.

“I’m kind of presuming it’s going to be some starting and stopping,” he said. “I’m not sure what protocol is if there’s a report of an infection, but presumably if nothing’s changed everyone would have to quarantine for a couple weeks or whatever. So I just figure there’ll be some of that. I guess my gut’s kind of telling me, and this is with fingers crossed, that this is hopefully kind of the last throes of COVID. But with the variants you never know. There could be another variant that could come out and everything could go to hell again.”

The one person on campus who probably knew the most about what it’s taken Claremont Unified School District to get where it was Wednesday, with thousands of kids about to be in classrooms again, was no doubt Assistant Superintendent, Educational Services, Julie Olesniewicz. She stepped into the interim superintendent role after former Superintendent Jim Elsasser left the district in 2020, and shepherded CUSD through the worst of the pandemic. With Jeff Wilson now at the helm, she’s back to her former role.

There she was Wednesday, on the steps at Condit, cheerfully helping out where she could.

Meanwhile, a day prior, Bonita Unified School District, right next door in La Verne, reported after one week of having kids back in its classrooms, 40 students and 12 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19, requiring an unreported number of staff and almost 500 students to quarantine for 10 days. This can’t be good news Claremont’s hopeful administrators, teachers and students, many of whom have reached the end of their patience with distance learning.

I asked Ms. Olesniewicz if she thought CUSD could make it to June without having to shut down again.

“I am confident we will. I’m hoping,” she said. “We woke up today and numbers in L.A. County have substantially dropped. Let’s hope it holds, but I think we’ve just learned over the months that anything can happen on any given day, so we have to be ready.”

Be ready we will. I for one am with Julie: I’m hoping my son will get a semblance of normal back. He’s missed his friends, most of which he hadn’t been in contact with for going on two years.

It’s tough to imagine “normal” these days. But Wednesday’s sweet first-day ritual, even with its  pandemic limitations, gave me hope that it’s out there.

It may be that we do go backwards this year. We’ll all have a clearer idea just how likely that may be over the next few weeks as the district’s 6,500 students rub up against each other and share indoor airspace, many for the first time since March 2020.

But no matter what happens, we did get Wednesday, and I’m grateful for one last first day.

And, go Condors.

 

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