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By Collin Breaux and Lillian Boyd

Students enrolled at R.H. Dana Elementary School were greeted with balloons, bubble machines and a smiling Principal Kristen Nelson on Tuesday, Aug. 17, for back-to-school day.

“I am so looking forward to a great year ahead,” Nelson said. “There is so much great energy around the school, and with new families, a growing staff, a supportive city and community, and an important mission, RH Dana is a school of the future.”

School campuses are full of life again as kids and educators return to classrooms in-person for a full, five-day-a-week schedule. According to Nelson, R.H. Dana will serve 260 students this academic year, with 12 children on the wait list for kindergarten.

Photos: R.H. Dana Elementary School welcomed back 260 students on Tuesday, Aug. 17, marking the return to in-person, daily instruction in the classroom. Photos: Lillian Boyd

“So many of the students expressed how happy they were to be back at school this week,” Nelson said. “We luckily were able to offer a full-day instructional program so, academically, our students weren’t negatively impacted (during the COVID-19 pandemic). Yet, socially, I can see that the students are having to get used to being around their friends again and use their social skills.”

R.H. Dana is one of the only schools in CUSD that offers a monthly food distribution through Second Harvest, Nelson added, highlighting how staff and faculty stepped up to serve the school community.

“We also have parent classes running most of the time of the year, helping parents with financial literacy through a partnership with the United Way of Orange County, parenting skills, and technology,” Nelson said. “For students, we work hard to provide a warm and loving environment that challenges them academically in both English and Spanish, celebrates different cultures, and focuses on marine biology and environmental stewardship.”

The first day of school for Capistrano Unified School District marked 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 case numbers.

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

CUSD has a safety plan in place—protocols that include sending students home if they show symptoms, limiting visitor access to campuses, and reminding students about frequent 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 the previous school year, when students either had to learn entirely online or through a hybrid model that mixed in-person instruction with virtual education.

“In support of a strong academic and social emotional learning environment for the 2021-22 school year, and because of state and federal COVID funds, we have hired over 300 more teachers, speech pathologists, psychologists, counselors, and classified staff this summer,” Superintendent Kirsten Vital Brulte said in a message to families before the start of the new school year.

“We have also worked to reduce class sizes, increase electives, bring credentialed physical education teachers to elementary students, purchase 35,000 new Chromebooks, and continue a strong investment in professional development for our certificated and classified staff,” she continued.

The state is requiring all teachers to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing. The district’s plan for students not wearing masks is for administrators to initially emphasize the importance of wearing one. A disposable mask will be provided if a student does not have a mask, according to CUSD’s safety plan.

“Students who refuse to wear a mask indoors will be marked unexcused and sent home for the remainder of the day,” according to the safety plan guidelines.

Elementary and middle school students will receive three warnings if they do not wear masks and then will be provided an alternative placement to Capistrano Virtual K-8. The three-warning system is the same for high school students, except they will be placed on a behavior contract for an alternative program afterward.

Masks have been a controversial topic, with some parents denouncing 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.

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