By Evelyn Archibald
After over a year of the COVID-19 pandemic looming over the globe, when schools had to transition to virtual teaching or risk widespread infection, the Summit Public Schools (SPS) charter district has made the choice to reopen entirely this fall. Summit Shasta, one SPS campus located in Daly City, Calif., reopened its doors on Aug. 18 to over 400 students.
Students and faculty have both expressed enthusiasm about returning to campus. Summit Shasta senior Rebecca Tapia said, “I’m more excited to come to school. In-person school isn’t actually that bad, if anything it’s pretty fun.”
“What I would constantly hear on the phone … was parents and kids wanting to come back to school and wanting some sort of resemblance of a normal life,” Claudia Velazquez, the Shasta dean of operations, said. “I was excited that we were able to offer that this year.”
Within the anticipation, some people also took pause when returning. “When we were first starting to get ready to go back in person I was actually pretty nervous, even with all the health and safety policies,” Jaziel Salomon, senior mentor and the AP Environmental Sciences teacher said. “I knew how strange it was going to feel being back on campus after having been teaching virtually for a year and a half.”
In the classroom, things are already looking up for some teachers and students. “It’s been night and day,” Michael Mahoney, junior mentor and the AP U.S. History teacher said. Mr. Mahoney joined Shasta last school year and this is his first year teaching on campus. “I think the best thing is the students. I can connect much more easily with the students. Last year … the vast majority of people had our cameras off, didn’t really want to engage in group work, which is something that’s very, very important to me.”
“The progress you make, it’s increased,” Shasta junior Jayden Duyee said about his experience coming back. “At home, you have many distractions, from your siblings and parents, and you never know when you’ll have an emergency and have to get off.”
SPS upon reopening released a cross-campus handbook regarding updated health and safety policies, like the requirement of masks on all students and staff indoors, and the HEPA-certified air filters in every classroom.
Mask cooperation is one of the most emphasized aspects of COVID safety at Shasta, and according to students, it’s been a relatively smooth transition. “I would say people generally do wear a mask correctly. It’s just like, at certain times, it will fall down like, so it’s not covering their nose anymore. And then they wouldn’t put it back up for some time. It’s not horrible, but it could be better,” Shasta junior and Student Advocacy Officer Ashley Yim said.
Shasta also hosts rapid COVID testing on campus, which is required for unvaccinated students and available for private drop-in tests. Ms. Velazquez said this has “eased some anxiety” for Shasta families: “[It] eliminates a layer of uncertainty for certain families.”
The U.S. Department of Education’s recommendation handbook for reopening elementary and secondary schools states that “to fully reopen schools safely for in-person learning, schools need strong state and local public health measures that everyone follows. Achieving high levels of COVID-19 vaccination among eligible students as well as teachers, staff, and household members is one of the most critical strategies to help schools safely resume full operations.”
California has been a spotlight state for the discussion on vaccine requirements in schools, especially with Culver City Unified being the first district to require full immunization for all students 12 and up, but the California schools in the Summit district have not made any mandate.
SPS’ handbook states: “Vaccines are one of the most important ways to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. At this time, Summit students are not required to be fully vaccinated to attend school in-person. However, all persons eligible for the vaccine are strongly encouraged to receive it.”
Yim said regarding vaccines in school, “The thing is, well, I’m vaccinated. Right. But like, honestly, there’s no point of forcing. There will always be people who lie about it, you know? So that just causes more problems.”
Some teachers, however, feel slightly differently. “If I could, I would say every student should be vaccinated before coming back,” Mr. Salomon said. “And then if I could, I would say like across all of California, across the United States. I do know that would be a really controversial move.”
Mr. Mahoney calls himself “a big believer in vaccines and vaccine mandates”. “Vaccines have been so successful and … it’s made a lot of us complacent and not realize just how crucial these are,” he said. “If mandates need to be brought in to get people in line, I feel like that’s where we should be.”
Mr. Mahoney continued, “I think we really get hung up on a really misguided sense of individual choice. And, as opposed I think we should be thinking more about what’s the greater good for everybody here.”
Summit Shasta’s administration stated in a school-wide email, “Our total vaccination rate at Shasta is in line with our very strong local area rate,” meaning San Mateo county as confirmed by Ms. Velazquez.
San Mateo County, where Daly City is located, has a vaccination series completion rate of just over 90%, with over 630,000 individuals receiving at least one shot.
“I want to say, all your teachers care about keeping you safe,” Mr. Salomon said. “And also, if you feel uncomfortable wearing a mask … the other person’s discomfort completely trumps your want and desire to take off your mask or something.”
Mr. Salomon continued, “Just take a moment and step back and make sure that you’re being empathetic to the people that might feel some concern, especially people who have vulnerable family members at home. Or who may be vulnerable themselves.”
Ms. Velazquez closed saying, “I think if there’s anything that I can say to student bodies. I’m really excited that they’re back on site, so we get to interact with each other in person. And I hope that they know that we’re working as hard as we can to make this a normal, quote unquote, year as we can for them.”
Featured Image (at the top of this post): Summit Shasta’s front office displays COVID-19 protection tips and school policies. PHOTO CREDIT: Evelyn Archibald