With their umbrellas up to keep the light rain away, the staff at Vandalia Elementary School happily welcomed students back to campus Monday afternoon.

Instruction for Vandalia and all other schools in Porterville Unified School District (PUSD) began virtually on Jan. 11. However, hybrid in-person instruction for students at schools that reopened before winter break resumed Monday (Jan. 25), providing a customary two-week quarantine period for students returning from vacation.

Vandalia principal Laura Vera said because of the district and the school’s planning when they first reopened in December, it was a smooth opening both then and now.

“I would say it went smooth in both the first time and again with today,” Vera said. “Absolutely didn’t feel any stress about today. It just really felt good that everyone knew what to do. You saw how well

behaved the kids are and excited they are to be at school. They’re a little quiet, little quieter than we’d normally see, but I think they’re excited to be here.”

Around 80 of Vandalia’s 600 students were present Monday. Vera expects closer to 100 today.

Cohorts of students at all 10 elementary schools and small groups at PUSD’S middle and high schools also returned to campus. At all campuses are students PUSD believes will significantly benefit from in-person instruction like special education students, homeless students, those in foster care, those learning English as a second language, or those without access to the internet or technology.

“We’re so far behind, as far as being able to provide the infrastructure for them, so the only way for them to be able to have access to technology is by coming on a campus,” Jason Pommier, PUSD’S public information officer, said. “So, really again, there’s those students at the levels we just mentioned. I think the average person has no idea what we’re trying to do as far as a public school district is concerned.

“Because there’s this segment that — this doesn’t mean they’re different. It just means that they’re dealing with a different set of circumstances and challenges that the average student doesn’t deal with,” Pommier said. “So you’re already having to deal with... how can we get those kids up to that next level. I think our teachers, our administrators, the staff, they’ve done a tremendous job... we have people that really care for these kids, and they know how important it is for them to get them on campus.”

Pommier said he’s heard from both sides of the discussion about whether schools should have students on campus during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have voiced their support, and others are speaking out against it.

However, PUSD’S focus is on making sure students don’t fall behind by giving each one the best opportunity to learn while taking everything one day at a time.

“I don’t think a lot of people thought we’d be sitting here in January, to be honest,” Pommier said. “That we’d really be almost a year, and it’s still ongoing. Everybody assumed when the vaccinations were going to come out, this was going to be an immediate deal, and that’s simply not going to be the case. So we take it as a one-day-at-a-time approach. We try to do everything we can for the students. We look at each individual student and what is going to be the best situation for them. And that is what we try to do.”

The hybrid learning model Vandalia and at other schools in the district allows for students to come to campus in the afternoon for two hours of in-person instruction and help, along with a snack. Before that, students have language arts and math classes in the morning, with English learners receiving 30 minutes of instruction on the English language. Students then have lunch and go through self-screenings with their parents to ensure they don’t show any COVID symptoms before heading off to school around 1 p.m.

On campus, the Vandalia staff help students along with support from AmeriCorps fellows and YES Program assistants.

“The teachers, I thought, would be anxious about having students at school, and they were so excited and the energy, you could feel the energy,” Vera said. “And they were actually — they wanted more students. I can’t tell you how exciting it is for us to be able to see them. Even though it’s for two hours of targeted instruction.”

Vera also expressed her excitement about having students back and how she felt it in her heart.

“When you feel like the only way you can reach them is through a TV screen or computer, to see them in person, your heart just kind of does a little flip because you’re so excited to see their little faces here,” she said.

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