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By Collin Breaux | Twitter: @collin_breaux

Shortly after it opened, Esencia School had to figure out how to keep instructing students while daily life was upended.

The school in Rancho Mission Viejo, which opened in 2018, currently educates students in grades pre-kindergarten through the seventh  grade. But everything changed at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced people to maintain physical distance from one another and wear face masks when they couldn’t.

“We were only open for about a year before we went into COVID,” Principal Josh Wellikson said. “All of the work we did prior to that (opening the school and the first year of truly developing a strong professional learning community, where our teachers were intertwined with each other), so that when on March 13, the whole world was turned upside down and students were sent away, our teachers were able to make a huge lift.”

Teachers kept delivering “top-notch instruction,” because they knew the curriculum, the students, and each other, Wellikson said. Pivoting to online learning was hard, but “smoother” than at other schools, Wellikson said.

Esencia School Principal Josh Wellikson said they have been able to successfully adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Collin Breaux.

“Families didn’t feel left out,” he said. “They felt connected because they knew they could talk to their teacher. They knew they could talk to any parent in that grade level and get support.”

Esencia School has since shifted to the hybrid model instituted in the Capistrano Unified School District, which currently offers limited in-person instruction and continued online learning. The number of days students can be on campus has gradually expanded, in accordance with shifting CUSD regulations. CUSD is planning to reopen campuses full-time next school year, starting in August.

“What we had here was four different programs, four different bell schedules, I feel like a million different offerings for the kids,” Wellikson said. “It goes back to our culture of building a family that we and the community were so united together that we shifted together.”

When the implementation of pandemic protocols on campus was first discussed, parents had questions on if and how students would wear masks.

“The first people we had come back on campus were kindergarteners,” Wellikson said. “We took our youngest kids. We asked them to put a mask on. They led it for us. The 5- and 6-year-olds showed us that they were so excited to be in school, they were willing to wear masks.”

There have reportedly been no issues with students wearing masks on campus.

Esencia School has maintained an emphasis on literacy and math, as well as consistency in instruction throughout grade levels. Teachers’ desks are on wheels, meaning they can move around the classroom. The school also uses wireless technology, so teachers can present from their computer from anywhere in the classroom.

“We have grown. Our first year, we only opened with PK-5—our elementary school,” Wellikson said. “We’re going to add eighth grade next year, and we will be a complete school.”

The middle school is slowly growing. Esencia School had approximately 400 students in its first year, and next year, the estimate is it will welcome approximately 1,100 students.

The campus has an outdoor garden area that is incorporated into student instruction.

“We’re really starting to put in there a mixture of floral plants and arrangements, native plants, edible plants, along with fruit trees and student projects,” Wellikson said. “It’s going to have a giant learning area. We had our Eagle Scouts build tables for us, so now we have this outdoor learning environment in there.”

Enrollment is generally targeted for families in Rancho Mission Viejo, given the size of the community and the school’s ability to reach capacity.

“Our younger grades here, K-3, we have anywhere from 128 to 150 kids in each grade level. We’re already at capacity,” Wellikson said. “We’re only going to keep adding. At some point, we theoretically are going to be at 1,300 kids, and we’re going to be less than five years old.”

Wellikson said the facility is excellent and that the school is “of the people.”

“What makes this place amazing is it’s of the community,” he said. “We are one together and feel supportive. Our community 100% supports us, and that’s because we 100% support this.”

Collin Breaux

Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at cbreaux@picketfencemedia.com

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