Some K-6 Students Return to Natomas Schools

Heron School principal Amy Whitten welcomes students during an in-person orientation with their cohorts held Tuesday on campus. / Photo

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Hundreds of students visited campuses throughout the Natomas Unified School District today in preparation for a return to in-person learning set to start next week.

“I’m so happy to see you,” Heron School principal Amy Whitten told a group of nine 4th graders who lined up outside the school to participate in a one-hour safety orientation on Feb. 23.

Except for small cohorts of special education students, it was the first time in nearly a year that first through sixth graders had been on the north Natomas campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic — and the first time ever, for pre-K and kindergarten students at the orientation.

“I’m really excited,” Whitten said. “Seeing kids on campus today felt really good. It feels like we are taking a step forward.”

A second group of students is scheduled to visit district campuses tomorrow, Feb. 24.

Starting Monday, March 1 cohorts of pre-K through second graders will take turns learning online at home and attending school in person at Natomas Unified non-charter school campuses. A week later, on March 8, cohorts of third through sixth graders will join them.

“I think it’s a great idea, the way they are starting it off,” said Tira Pollins whose son, Billionaire, is a 4th grader at Heron School.

Overall, about 43% of the district’s students plan to return to campus while the rest continue learning online solely from home, according to a school district spokesperson.

At Heron, for example, there will be 404 students rotating on and off campus, a number that will grow to 525 once state officials OK middle and high school classes to resume in person.

Natomas Unified set in motion its plan to reopen campuses at a school board meeting on Feb. 10.

That weekend, school district officials and teachers’ union leaders hammered out a labor agreement needed to make reopening schools for in-person learning possible which included a transition period and safety orientations for students.

Parent Esmeralda Nieves said distance learning has been good for her daughter Emma, a 4th grader who enrolled at Heron School this year, but thinks she needs in-person interaction with classmates.

At Tuesday’s on-campus student orientation, Nieves said she had watched the district’s safety videos online.

“It looks like they have good protocols in place, so that makes me feel better with her coming (to school),” she said.

Students whose parents have opted for them to attend school in person have been divided into small cohorts which will rotate every other day.

For example, Heron kindergarten teacher Mike Turner has 19 students, eight of whom will be joining him in the classroom. One day, one cohort of four will be in the classroom, the next day the other four students will be on campus.

Teachers are scheduled to spend 30 minutes at the beginning of each day dedicated to those students who are on campus with them and, after a 15 minute break during which the in-person cohort is dismissed, spend 30 minutes of each day dedicated to those students who are learning solely from home. For 135 minutes, teachers will provide concurrent, live instruction to both groups of students via their Chromebooks.

“I would rather be at school,” Heron School third grader Ellis Morton said after his in-person orientation Tuesday afternoon, when asked whether he preferred distance learning or being on campus.

The orientations being held this week throughout the district are meant to mirror a typical day at school: School staff performed symptom checks with parents for students who were dropped off by car. Those who walked or cycled themselves to campus checked in with school staff who performed temperature checks.

All students were told to wear masks over their mouth and nose once on campus. All campuses, including Heron School, are marked with directional arrows and signage reminding students to practice physical distance and observe capacity limits for restroom facilities.

During orientation students were reminded to bring their Chromebooks to school as well as filled personal water bottles. They were also told that they would not have recess while at school and could only stay on campus after school if enrolled in the 4th R program.

Independent charter schools within the Natomas Unified School District’s boundaries are also taking steps to welcome students back on campus in the coming weeks.

Star Academy plans to reopen its campus on March 1 while Natomas Pacific Pathways Prep plans to reopen March 8 for kindergarten, first and second grades and on April 5 for third, fourth and fifth grades, with a modified school schedule.

The Westlake Charter School board of directors is holding a special meeting later this week on Feb. 25 to discuss next steps for reopening the K-8 campus.

Twin Rivers Unified School District officials have said they are prepared to reopen for in-person learning, but are reportedly still negotiating with the teachers union.

Students arrive to Heron School en masse for the first time in nearly a year. / Photo

Students who walked, cycled or scooted themselves to campus go through a symptom check with school staff before entering campus. / Photo

Students desks sit at the ready for students to return to campus. / Photo

Capacity is limited in school bathrooms. / Photo

The playground at Heron School remains closed. There will be no recess during the transition to in-person learning. / Photo

First graders practice physical distancing at Heron School on Tuesday. / Photo courtesy Amy Whitten


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