At the intersection of East Meadow Drive and Waverley Street on Wednesday morning, sixth graders Alma Michlin and Liani Ragaele waited for the green light on their way to school, feeling a mixture of excitement and anxiety.
"I'm a little nervous because I'm not really used to being at school as much since we did distance learning and then hybrid," said Ragaele, a student at Palo Alto's Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School. "I'm also worried about wearing masks on hot days, but I think the masks are going to help us stay safe, so I'm just glad everyone's wearing them."
Nearby, crossing guards expertly coordinated the traffic of middle schoolers on bikes and a queue of backed up cars. Within the organized chaos of the JLS drop off zone, some students chatted with friends while others looked hyper-focused on crossing the street, hands clutching backpack straps and lips pursed.
For many Palo Alto students, the orchestrated routine of getting to campus is a familiar return to pre-pandemic life. For others, particularly sixth graders and this year's seventh graders — who began middle school last fall after COVID-19 broke out — the experience is completely new and nerve-wracking.
JLS students, along with all other students at Palo Alto Unified School District's five middle and high schools, started a new year on Wednesday — the first relatively normal back-to-school day since 2019. Elementary school students begin their year on Thursday.
While around 60% of the JLS student body attended school in-person at the end of last semester, the campus population has increased to 97% this year, according to Principal Chris Grierson.
The remaining 3%, or approximately 25 students, will participate in a virtual independent study program run by Stride Learning Solutions, a private vendor of distance learning curriculum.
On campus, students and adults are required to mask indoors in accordance with federal, state and district rules, although masks are optional outdoors. Physical distancing will not be required and COVID-19 tests will be available on campus.
Additionally, the district requires that all staff show proof of vaccination and that those without proof of vaccination be tested daily for COVID-19, according to Board of Education President Shounak Dharap. Unvaccinated volunteers are not allowed on campus. Dharap said that the policy is one of the most stringent in the state.
Even with the excitement about in-person education, Grierson is aware of how socially and mentally overstimulating the re-entry to school may be for students, given the increased class sizes, navigating COVID-19 guidelines and a return to seven hour days at school.
"I think the hardest thing coming out of the pandemic is that people are leery of what in-person learning looks and feels like," he said. "Many people are kind of nervous about the length of a real in-person school day and the stamina it takes being out in public and around other people."
To ease students' transition back to normal schooling, JLS has adopted a modified block bell schedule with a later start time of 8:30 a.m., a seven period day on Monday and only three to four classes Tuesday through Friday. Grierson hopes that the new schedule will help students "redevelop social muscles and accelerate gradually to the regular cadence of school before the pandemic."
Additionally, Panther Camp, an orientation for incoming sixth graders, has been expanded to all JLS students. The camp's week-long itinerary includes mini scavenger hunts so students can find the library, gym and classrooms and reminders on how to use Schoology and other class resources.
"Because it isn't just the sixth graders this year and it's all grades, it's this kind of wonderful experience of all of us learning together this whole week," Assistant Principal Hanisi Accetta told the Weekly.
With new incoming families and students from the lottery-based Connections Program, Grierson and Accetta also hope that Panther Camp will help students get to know unfamiliar faces in their classroom as well.
"Our goal is to make sure that people feel comfortable making new friends and getting to know others, especially when they might not have had that level of practice or exposure in the last 18 months," Grierson said.
Like other students, eighth grader Harrison Lan feels slightly nervous to start the school year, especially because he hasn't been back on campus for a year and a half. But despite that minor anxiety, he said he's looking forward to getting back to normal, trying different classes and reconnecting with friends.
Amid a national surge of the delta variant of the coronavirus, Grierson labeled the possibility that the variant will affect the school year as the "elephant in the room." Many educators are leery of schools shutting down again to contain the virus, he said, but contingency plans have been made in preparation for the future.
"Of course, the health and safety of our students and families and staff members is our primary concern, and if we do need to reverse our direction and go into a shelter in place type of learning format, then we will do so," Grierson said. "The nice thing is that most, if not all of our teachers have experience with that."
Dharap echoed this importance of prioritizing public health and also believes that the district is now better prepared in case the delta variant does spike.
"Having gone through this for a year and a half, the plans in place have been tested, so I think it will be a lot easier to figure out where the gaps are and where the issues are and continue serving our students. But of course, we're hoping that doesn't happen," Dharap said.
In front of the entrance to JLS, parent Matt McCulloch proudly snapped a candid picture of his son mounted on his bike, with helmet strapped on tight. It was his son's first day of middle school as a sixth grader and while McCulloch was excited, he also expressed concern about how the lack of in-person school has affected his son's and other students' ability to socialize and learn face-to-face.
"The negative of the pandemic is that stages of social and mental development for kids have passed and will never happen again. For kids, it's so important to be in social dynamics," McCulloch said. "The ramifications of seclusion for such a long period of time — we're not going to truly know what those ramifications are for years."
The return to school has prompted educators and parents like McCulloch to look back and reflect on how the past 18 months has affected students' and families' lives.
With kids going back to school, McCulloch said he can fully focus on work without also parenting his two children at home.
"It sounds terrible, but we've spent our careers partially outsourcing parenting to after-school programs, daycares, preschools and au pairs and whoever is caring for our children," he said. "Now, we are forced to learn how to be better parents, and I think we have become better parents and more patient than we were before."
To Accetta, the experience of the pandemic has simply reminded her and other staff how much they love building communities and relationships with students in their classroom.
"It makes my heart so happy that we're going to be able to have this opportunity to really work with our students again in person," she said. "It's going to be great."