Gilroy elementary students return to the classroom after more than a year

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Luigi Aprea Elementary School teacher Jessica Steiner leads a class of first-graders during the first day of students returning to in-person instruction on April 15. Photo: Erik Chalhoub

For some, it was their first time stepping onto a school campus. For others, it was a return to a sense of normalcy that had been lost more than a year ago.

But every one of the students who walked into a classroom at Luigi Aprea Elementary School on April 15 felt excitement and relief after learning from home in front of a computer for the last 13 months.

Elementary students of Gilroy Unified School District returned to in-person classes on April 15, after the Board of Education approved a hybrid plan for the remainder of the school year in March.

Students in preschool through fifth grade are on campus from 8:30-11:15am Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Friday, and return to distance learning at home from noon to 2pm. Wednesdays are reserved for distance learning all day.

Middle and high school students, however, will remain in distance learning, after a majority of the trustees rejected a hybrid plan.

Luigi Aprea Principal Nicole Black said it was “all smiles” as students walked onto campus at 8:30am, with their parents snapping photos of them in front of signs and balloons welcoming them back to school.

“It was really exciting for the families, the kids and the teachers,” she said. “The kids had the biggest smiles on their faces.”

Following Covid-19 public health guidelines, the school has different entrances based on grade levels, where students wash their hands and have their temperatures checked. For the first day of in-person school, each walkway leading to an entrance was adorned with chalk art created by local high school students.

Each classroom also follows recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which states that students must be at least three feet apart from each other. 

At Luigi Aprea, that means roughly 15 students per classroom, Black said, adding that the children have been “very mindful of social distancing.”

“They were so happy to socialize with some of their friends,” she said.

Luigi Aprea Elementary School Principal Nicole Black (left) and Gilroy Unified School District Superintendent Deborah Flores view chalk art created to welcome students back to school. Photo: Erik Chalhoub

According to Black, 369 students returned to in-person class out of a total of 675 at the school, with the rest remaining in distance learning. That return rate is average for the rest of the district, Superintendent Deborah Flores said, with about 60 percent opting to return to the classroom.

Flores toured various elementary schools during the morning of April 15, saying the first day “couldn’t have gone better.”

“On a scale of one to 10, it was a 10-plus,” she said. “Everybody was so excited. You wouldn’t even know that it was the first day. When you get in the classroom, the teachers are teaching and the students are learning. They looked very comfortable and happy.”

But some parents remain disappointed that the Board of Education did not approve a hybrid plan for secondary students.

At the March 25 meeting, some trustees were concerned that a hybrid plan would result in reduced instructional time for secondary students. Others questioned the logistics of maintaining stable cohorts, as secondary students have different teachers throughout the day, whereas elementary students stay with one.

A group of parents, known as Advocating for Gilroy Students, released a statement April 13, saying they had “submitted a petition with close to 800 signatures for the reopening of Gilroy schools to the district and board, along with emails and public comments requesting more transparency and communication with their reopening plans.”

“We are asking Gilroy Unified to follow their legal obligations to our students and provide in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible,” the statement read.

The group also questions why GUSD is the only district in the county that isn’t offering some type of in-person schedule for secondary students.

The number of new Covid-19 cases in Gilroy, which average about 30 weekly, have improved in recent months, yet still remain among the highest in the county, according to public health data, which was a concern among some trustees when considering a hybrid plan.

Classrooms throughout the Gilroy Unified School District have desks at least three feet apart from each other. Photo: Erik Chalhoub

On April 14, Gov. Gavin Newsom said that he expects all students to return to in-person learning in the fall.

Flores said it is GUSD’s plan to reopen in the fall, but it also must come up with a backup plan in case Gilroy’s Covid-19 numbers begin to surge again.

She added that she was encouraged by the vaccination numbers not only in the county, but among district staff, with about 65 percent receiving at least a first dose.

Flores and district staff will present updates on reopening plans at each board meeting through the end of the school year. The next meeting takes place virtually on April 22 at 7pm. To view the agenda, visit bit.ly/3eb0ob0.

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