Burbank Unified Students, Teachers And Staff Head Back To School

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Elementary students eat in the lunch shelter on the first day of school, August 16, 2021. (Photo by © 2021 Ross A Benson)

Burbank Unified School District students and staff headed back to school with a return to full day, in person education in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic on Monday, August 16.

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Masks are required to be worn indoors at all BUSD school sites, as mandated by the Burbank Board of Education and Los Angeles County Public Health. Additionally, the district has put into place a weekly testing plan that is optional for all students, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, and mandatory for all unvaccinated teachers and staff.

“The first day of school at JBHS was filled with positive energy from students, teachers and staff,” commented newly-appointed John Burroughs High School Principal Matt Chambers. “It was great to see so many safe and meaningful human interactions throughout the day. I am grateful for all of our faculty and staff members who continue to serve students despite the many challenges we continue to face.”

Currently, approximately 2450 students are enrolled in grades 9 -12 at Burroughs for in person education, Chambers said.

First day of school 2021: Burbank Unified Superintendent Matt Hill and new John Burroughs High School Principal Dr. Matt Chambers welcome students back to campus. (Photo by ©2021 Ross A Benson)

Twenty-six JBHS students are currently enrolled in Independent Learning Academy (ILA), the online learning platform Burbank Unified students in grades 7 -12 utilize, according to John Paramo, Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services.

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District-wide, there are 110 students enrolled in ILA, although, as Paramo said, “This changes at the end of every day.”

“As a senior, I was very excited to see my friends, start a new year, make my last first day memorable, and I can say with 100% certainty that my goal was accomplished!” said Burroughs High senior Nicolette Gani. “Although it was very different seeing everyone in masks, the energy from our wonderful administration and staff made the student body feel very welcomed, making John Burroughs a safe space for everyone.”

“It was amazing to speak with my teachers in person, sit in a desk, and connect with my peers that I haven’t seen in two years. Specifically, I am so grateful to spend my last year with Dr. Chambers, our phenomenal principal who truly cares about the student body and wants our voices to be heard!”

“Dr. Chambers is extremely supportive, has such a wonderful willingness to help in every and any which way he can, he is always wanting the best for our school, as well as ensuring the safety of our students in the process!” Gani added. “I know we are going to have a great year despite any adversities that we may face! Go Bears!”

Students at Burroughs High waited in lines to get new schedules on the first day of school, August 16, 2021. (Photo by © 2021 Ross A Benson)

“Considering the concerns teachers carried as we inched closer to the first day of school, I feel like today was a great success,” commented JBHS English 10 and ELD 3/4 teacher Jessica Mayes, who grew up attending BUSD schools and has taught for the district for nine years. “Students were happy to be in class, excited to see each other in group settings, and participated in class activities without a hitch.”

“Every student with whom I interacted was kind, polite, and forgiving, especially when I experienced a few hiccups in our first class’ lesson,” she continued. “It was wonderful to receive drop-in visits from students I have not seen since we left campus on March 13, 2019, and I am happy that we are back on campus together again.”

However, concerns about the rising number of Delta-varient covid cases across the country, and those particularly tied to the return to in person education, seems to be on many people’s minds, as Mayes candidly expressed.

“With regard to being back on campus with full classes, I am concerned about the health of our students and staff. I have seen on the news that some schools in other districts have shut down due to spread of the coronavirus and I am fearful that this could become a reality for Burbank USD again,” Mayes said. “In addition, our class sizes are larger than usual (a direct result of not passing Measure I), so I worry about safely and appropriately physically distancing students from each other, and our staff members, since so many of our students are not vaccinated.”

Kids line up for classes at Brett Harte Elementary including new kindergarten students. (Photo by 2021 © Ross A Benson)

“It is so thrilling to have students back on the playground and in classrooms!” commented Bret Harte Elementary Principal Martha Walter. “When the gate opened at 8:00 to let students in, an actual cheer rose up from assembled kids and parents! The sound of the cheering was so joyous and wasn’t the only time this morning that I had tears.”

“Teachers are over the moon to have kids back in their classrooms!” she added. “It’s not what we would have chosen, being masked, but we will take it!”

Walter noted that currently, Bret Harte has 541 students enrolled in Kindergarten through fifth grade, with 19 students engaging in the remote Independent Learning model that BUSD has provided for those in grade six and under.

“My heart was beating out of my chest this morning in anticipation of seeing a full class of students for the first time in over year,” said third grade teacher Wendy Thompson. “I didn’t realize how much I missed the sounds of children laughing and playing. It’s just wonderful music.”

“Upon returning to school today to teach my second grade class at Bret Harte Elementary School, I heard my colleagues joking around in the halls just like we had never left,” commented Jennifer Niwa. “It felt nice to have that familiarity back. All staff members looked first day of school fancy… Ms. Crystal had a new and stylish dress as did Ms. Gregorczyk and Mr. Warner looked business casual.”

Students wait with their parents at Bret Harte Elementary during the first day of classes, August 16, 2021. (Photo by © 2021 Ross A Benson)

“Ms. Walter couldn’t get enough of the return to a school full of children and teachers and staff members. She visited classes and made announcements. At 8:15 a.m. I went out to greet my line of excited second graders. Their parents were beaming. The students looked like a Target catalogue fashion show. Their smiling eyes showed even though I couldn’t see actual smiles due to masking.”

“When I said my usual ‘Good Morning Room 10,’ all of the parents clapped. That never happened before. I felt recommitted to my sacred practice of becoming a part of a group of families for a second grade year.”

“While teaching throughout the day, I was so pleased to watch over the students as they worked on the first day of school projects that I assigned,” Niwa continued.” I could see their work as they were doing it right in front of my eyes, I could walk around, give feedback, circle back to view the work as the students reacted to the feedback. This I missed so very much during remote instruction.”

“I finally feel empowered to help students to the best of my ability once again. During instruction, my students enjoyed many pair share discussions during the day as I read aloud to them, as they worked with shapes in Geometry, as they considered writing rules for the class.”

“The sharing of ideas live, in person was joyous. Everyone participated heartily. I know they missed the interaction. And although the sun was baking our blacktop play yard, the students joyfully indulged in the social festivities of simply going to recess and lunch,” Niwa also said. “I will never take teaching in person for granted again.”

First recess and hydration break takes place at Providencia Elementary School. ( Photo by © 2021 Ross A Benson)

Maddie, age 5, started her first day of Kindergarten at Bret Harte on Monday and said, “It was a lot of fun” and that she “really liked recess.”

“Her highlight of the day was helping a new friend tie their shoe when the lace came loose,” said Maddie’s mother, Sam. “The day seemed great for her, if maybe a little overwhelming.”

“For myself and my husband it was bittersweet to say the least. As exciting as it was to see her off to Kindergarten, it is hard to watch her grow so quickly,” Sam continued. “Especially in such a strange year, everything felt a little bit surreal. But we also feel fortunate that her first year is safely in person and that she gets to go to school in a true classroom environment!”

“Masking isn’t a problem for Maddie – we’ve been practicing our mask wearing for well over a year now, and she’s been wearing one daily since she returned to preschool in June,” she added. “She’s an old pro now and even has preferences on styles.”

“It was amazing to see all our learners, faculty, and support staff members all on campus,” commented Luther Burbank Middle School Principal Oscar Macias. “Everyone seems anxious yet excited to be at school. I am so proud of this Luther Burbank Middle School community. I believe the first day of school went really well.”

Dr. Matt Hill, BUSD Superintendent, gets a little game of tetherball during recess at Thomas Jefferson Elementary. ( Photo by © 2021 Ross A Benson)

“I think we’ve said everything we can about how difficult this past year was but now we must look forward and do everything we can to find success for our learners, our faculty, support staff, parents/guardians, community members, and ourselves,” Macias added. “We need to recognize the work this year will be challenging and doesn’t have to be done alone. Let’s make sure we continue to be partners and support each other. Also, we need to prioritize self-care.”

Across town at Burbank High, teachers and staff welcomed back approximately 2500 students, including 11 dual-enrolled with ILA, according to Principal Thomas Crowther.

“Staff returned for the pre-school work week on August 9. I would describe the mood as one of nervous energy,” commented Crowther. “It was the same nervous energy that we felt from students during registration the week before. That said, when both resumed for opening day on August 16, I no longer felt a nervous energy, only an energy. Students are happy to see teachers, and vice-versa. We are happy to be back ‘home!'”

“Under the circumstances and against all odds, we had a smooth and relatively quiet opening. Our clerical and counseling team had a plan and executed, by 10:00 a.m. the Student Center was quiet and it looked like a normal first day – with the exception that you’d visit a classroom with everyone masked.”

Six hundred Chromebooks are being prepared for distribution at John Muir Middle School. ( Photo by © 2021 Ross A Benson)

“Our biggest challenge is balancing the traditional pieces that come with opening – registration, teacher in-service, parent meetings, other employees returning and students returning with sudden and new to-dos related to Covid,” Crowther continued. “For example, just this month we had to execute obtaining the confidential vaccination status of all adults on site – a time consuming but important to-do.”

“This morning, we are in the process of the first opportunity for students to Covid test on our campus. Parents might want peace of mind to start the year, or a student may need screening for extra curriculars,” he added. “There are a lot of moving parts with that and so a lot of staff moves mountains to make it happen. We also know that situations related to Covid change all the time – so a school may have to shift as the District shifts to a mandate from the County or the State.”

Burbank Unified Superintendent Matt Hill toured many of the school sites, as he has in past years, on the first day of school.

“It was very exciting to be back on campus with students and employees,” Hill commented. “The positive energy was felt throughout all of the schools.”

“We continue to implement all of the health guidelines [outlined by L.A. County Public Health] to keep students and employees safe,” he also said. “The Board and I are very grateful for all of the planning and work BUSD employees did to reopen schools safely.”

The new principal of Thomas Jefferson Elementary, Ron Young, helps students on the first day of class. (Photo by © 2021 Ross A Benson)

Enrollment numbers fluctuate a great deal during the first 10 days of the new school year, Hill said, while noting that currently 268 students are enrolled in online, independent study across the district. Burbank Unified has been averaging approximately 15,000 enrolled students throughout the district in recent years, with that number following a national trend of slightly decreasing year to year.

Burbank Unified requires a signed consent form for all students under age 18 to be tested for coronavirus at school. According to Hill, the CareStart EUA COVID-19 Antigen test is being used to collect a sample via Anterior Nasal Swab (shallow swab) by a clinical staff member. Results are available after 10 minutes.

The District is readying Chromebooks for distribution to every BUSD student in grades 6 -12 to check out and use for the 2021-22 school year. Federal stimulus funds received earlier in 2021 helped the district fund that effort.

Teachers have set up their Google Classrooms online, while preparing for in person classes.

According to District officials, if schools have to close again due to Covid-19, BUSD “teachers and staff are prepared to switch to Distance Learning if it is necessary. In addition, our students will have a Chromebook and access to technology.”

On Friday, August 13, Hill shared a Welcome Back Video with families, students, teachers and staff where he talked “about our safety protocols, mental health resources, academic supports, and our work on diversity, equity, and inclusion.” The video can be viewed online.

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