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Students gather on the campus of Southwest High School in El Centro as they try to find their way to their first classes on Monday morning, Aug. 9, the first day of full in-person school since March 2020. | MARCIE LANDEROS PHOTO

El Centro Students Return Amid ‘The ’Rona’

Central Union High School District is First to Head Back to All-Day, In-Person Since March 2020

EL CENTRO — Southwest High was electric with excitement on the first day of the first full school year of in-person classes since August 2019, as the students and staff of El Centro’s two Central Union High School District campuses led the return on Monday morning, Aug. 9.

In March 2020, a worldwide pandemic turned the world on its ear and schoolchildren across the country were sent home to a year and a half of distance learning and modified schedules.

Principal Matt Phillips greets and directs students as they enter campus on Monday morning, Aug. 9, the first day of full in-person school since March 2020. | MARCIE LANDEROS PHOTO

Most other Imperial County schools return to their respective campuses on Aug. 23.

“Man, I am so happy to be back. This was like the worst summer vacation, and it would not end,” said 18-year-old senior Jose Garcia on Monday morning, before the first bell rang, speaking from behind plain black mask.

“My mom is all afraid of the ’Rona. I am just glad not to be at home anymore,” he said referring to giant sickness sucking all the oxygen out of the room, the SARS-CoV-2 virus — or the “’Rona” — that has led to 27,218 cases and climbing of COVID-19 in Imperial County.

While faculty and staff were preparing, and parents were worrying, it was the students who seemed apathetic to the dangers of COVID, despite a new rapid resurgence in cases across the nation in the last month.

Ashley and Arlene Lopez, two sisters in the 10th and 11th grades, respectively, were more focused on moving to a new school than fearing catching COVID.

“I am really glad to be here, but I am kind of nervous,” said 16-year-old Ashely, the younger of the two, before 17-year-old Arlene interjected, “But she’s new here. She’s a transfer. So am I.”

“I am really excited to be here,” Ashley added. “I am just nervous about being new.”

Arlene simply smile and said, “Same,” as they walked off toward their classes, laughing and chatting. 

Banners and signs welcomed back both students and staff at Central Union High School on Monday, Aug. 9, the first day of full in-person school since March 2020. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTOS

For incoming freshman Christyan Pottscott, 14, the standing in front of the main office almost seemed overwhelming. Christyan stared wide-eyed at the students passing, saying, “It’s weird to be back. I am really nervous.”

Again, this had nothing to do with COVID. Christyan’s responded with a quick but clear: “No. I am nervous because I am a freshman.”

Different year, same story. Still …

With 274 active cases of COVID reported in Imperial County by the Imperial County Public Health Department on Tuesday, Aug. 10, senior Jose Garcia’s mother isn’t the only parent concerned about their child’s safety amid “’Rona.”

“He wants to go back to school so much,” Maria Rodriguez said of her son as she watched him cross through the front gate at the front of the campus on Monday morning. “But with everything going on, I just don’t know.”

On campus, faculty and staff could be seen milling around the chatting students, reminding them to keep their masks on, a relatively new directive from the state Public Health Officer as COVID cases started to rise again in July.

Southwest staff directed students to classes and answered their questions. Maria Muñoz, a nutrition services staff member, handed out free breakfast to students who wanted some.

“It feels good to come back, to see all the students’ faces, but at the same time we have to start new practices for a new year,” she said from behind her breakfast cart, laughing and waving at students as they walked past.

Students cross the street to get to Southwest High School in El Centro on Monday morning, Aug. 9, the first day of full in-person school since March 2020. | MARCIE LANDEROS PHOTO

Muñoz was able to provide the free meals for students because all breakfast and lunches for every student in the Central Union district have been made free to help offset any financial struggles students might be facing due to COVID. Other changes included the masking requirement, limiting student access to working areas, encouraging social distancing in both the classroom and the halls, and checking visitors in at the gate rather than the office.

“With everything going on, we never know what’s coming next. This is why it’s so important for us to be flexible. Look today, we’re back to full masks all the time,” said Matt Phillips, Southwest High School principal, just before the school bell rang.

Phillips, principal for the past five years, could be seen greeting students he hadn’t seen since the pandemic started, and introducing himself to new faces. More than once, his voice could be heard above the din of students, saying, “Now remember, we need to go slow, to move fast!”

Students at Central Union High leave campus at the end of the day on Monday, Aug. 9, the first day of full in-person school since March 2020. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO

Across town it was much of the same at Central Union High School on Brighton Avenue, where a sea of masked students streamed from campus at the end of the first day.

The Central district is one of the more cautious districts at the moment, offering parents fearful of a full return to campus amid COVID some options. Not all school districts are doing the same; it is different from town to town, based on the whims of the respective school boards.

For any parents in the El Centro district who feel that their child should not return to school, a third “campus” was created in the Central Union Virtual Academy, to address the needs of students who are not ready to return to in-person study. This school operates under an independent study model, with students meeting with their teacher in person or virtually each week.

Students have the option to complete two semester courses every six weeks, completing six classes each semester, or students will be enrolled in six classes that must be attended daily, also completing six classes each semester. The courses are being offered through a company called Edgenuity but tests will be taken in-person.

The office and testing center will be co-located at Central Union Adult School, but students may be dual-enrolled at their neighborhood school if additional classes are needed and may also participate in extracurricular activities at their neighborhood school.

Other School Districts’ Opening Dates and Modifications

  • Holtville Unified School District
    • First Day: Aug. 23
    • Face coverings and other protective gear
    • Health screening for students and staff
    • Healthy hygiene practices
    • Identification and tracing of contacts
    • Physical distancing
    • Staff training and family education
    • COVID Testing of Students and Staff
    • New lunch and recess protocol
    • New restroom protocols
  • Calexico Unified School District
    • First Day: Aug. 23
    • Masks – all staff and students will be required to wear masks indoors at all times. Wearing masks outdoors will remain optional.
    • Temperature checks required upon entering all school sites.
    • All student desks have plexiglass barriers installed
    • Handwashing stations and hand sanitizer stations are located throughout all school buildings
    • All sites are sanitized daily
    • Uniforms will be mandatory for all K-8 grade students.
  • El Centro Elementary School District
    • First Day: Aug. 23
    • Employee, visitor and student health screening
    • Face coverings employees/students /authorized visitors
    • Physical distancing
    • Ventilation with outdoor air
    • Hand sanitizing
  • McCabe Union School District
    • First Day: Aug. 23
    • Remaining with one small group for all activities
    • Modified entrance, movement within the school
    • Required face coverings and other essential protective gear
    • Health screenings for students and staff
    • Healthy hygiene practices
    • Identification and tracing of contacts
    • Physical distancing
    • Staff training and family education
    • Testing of student and staff
    • Identification and reporting of cases
    • Communication plans to reach parents in case of an outbreak
  • Imperial Unified School District
    • First Day: Aug. 23
    • Stable group structures
    • Entrance, Egress and Movement Within the School
    • Face coverings and other protective gear
    • Health screening for students and staff
    • Healthy hygiene practices
    • Identification and tracing of contacts
    • Physical distancing
    • Staff training and family education
    • Testing of students and staff
    • New lunch and recess protocol
    • New restroom protocols