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By Collin Breaux | Twitter: @collin_breaux

School campuses are full of life again as kids and educators return to classrooms in-person for a full five-day-a-week schedule. Kids listen while in their seats, hang out during lunch breaks, and walk around on campus with backpacks in tow.

The start of the 2021-22 school year on Tuesday, Aug. 17, seemed like a normal time—except everyone was still wearing masks while indoors.

The first day of school for Capistrano Unified School District marks some sort of a return to normalcy, though mask requirements were a reminder that the COVID-19 pandemic continues—and has arguably worsened in some respects as a direct result of the Delta variant and subsequent rise in cases.

CUSD is prepared, though, and following guidelines set forth by the California Department of Public Health, which mandate masks for students and adults in indoor settings. Masks can be removed if people are outdoors, though some still opt to keep them on.

The mood at Capistrano Union High School in San Juan Capistrano—a continuation school open to students throughout the district for those who need credit recovery, have behavioral issues, or just want a smaller campus experience—was one of joy and relief, as classmates and educators got to see their peers in-person again.

“Easy. Smooth sailing. Knock on wood,” Principal Brittany Casey said of how the first day back went. “No issues. We did a student expectations assembly, which was new. We did doughnuts—kind of a celebration of being back, after being gone for so long.”

Capistrano Union High School Principal Brittany Casey talks with teacher Ryan Talafus during the first day of the 2021-22 school year on Tuesday, Aug. 17. Photo: Collin Breaux

Union High School is also celebrating a rebranding since they have a new name—or rather, an old one. Union High School used to be known as Serra High School, but the CUSD Board of Trustees recently approved the school reverting to its current and original name following scrutiny of Father Junipero Serra’s interactions with the region’s Indigenous people.

School Counselor Shannon Halbert said students obeyed rules and had no complaints. Students also reportedly had no issues with wearing masks.

“If they didn’t have a mask or forgot one, they just got one up in front and put it on. We’re good to go,” Halbert said. “All of them came in here and did it. It’s kind of odd when you don’t have anyone combat you.”

Student Edgar Ordonez, 17, said the first day of school was good, because he had attended classes last semester and knew everyone.

“It feels weird since the whole mask thing makes it hard for us to breathe,” Ordonez said of returning to campus during a pandemic. “It makes the glasses foggy, but it’s not like something too big. I have no issue at all (with masks). I just prefer having it off at times, because it shows people how I really feel with my smile.”

Union High School has 11 teachers, 25 staff members, and approximately 125 students.

Over at San Juan Hills High School, the campus was also full of life as students caught up with friends during lunch and walked around campus. Principal Manoj Mahindrakar said the return of so many students required some acclimation. One student reportedly even cried, because she was so happy to be back on campus.

“The overall conversation I’ve been having with students is ‘finally,’ ” Mahindrakar said. “It’s been 522 days since the last time they’ve had normal school. There’s obviously still protocols and processes in place, but if you want into any of these classes, they’re full.”

San Juan Hills also had no issues with students wearing masks. A lot of students understand that’s a part of being able to be at school, Mahindrakar said.

“The other thing, too, that’s nice is it’s not required outdoors,” he said. “It is a little bit of a break from it.”

Students are back on campus at San Juan Hills High School for the 2021-22 school year. Photo: Collin Breaux

CUSD has a safety plan in place—guidelines that include sending students home if they show symptoms, limiting visitor access to campuses, and reminding students about hand washing through signs posted throughout campus.

Physical distancing is no longer required on campuses. The in-person return to campus marks a change from past school years held during the pandemic, when students either had to learn either entirely online or through a hybrid model that mixed in-person instruction with virtual education.

The state is requiring all teachers to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing. Masks have been a controversial topic with some parents, who have denounced them on the grounds of limiting students’ capacity for self-expression and alleged detrimental health effects. Medical experts and other parents, however, say masks limit the spread of COVID-19 and are not harmful to students.

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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