The San Diego Unified School District, the largest school district in San Diego County, gave warm welcomes on Monday across the region to the tens of thousands of students who returned to school for the first time in more than a year.
Cheerleaders roared and held welcoming signs at a pep rally for Mira Mesa High School students for their back to school event. As they cheered and added extra pep in their peers' step, the student athletes wore facial coverings while doing flips and tumbles.
Back to School
It's an accessory they said they don't mind wearing.
"I'm personally really for it," said Sophia Welsh, a Mira Mesa senior. "I really want to be healthy and safe while I'm in school because I'm excited to see all my friends here."
"I feel the same way," added senior Maui Wabe. "It's not just protecting me, but also protecting others, especially if they haven't gotten the vaccine."
Kylea Kubicki, a fellow senior, also told NBC 7 that she feels wearing facial coverings adds an extra layer of protection against COVID-19.
"I would rather have the mask, than not," she said. "Especially practicing. We practice so close together."
New COVID-19 policies have been put in place for the big day with the district announcing last week that its outdoor masking policy would be reintroduced for the 2021-2022 school year. The district said students and staff members will need to wear masks at all times while outside on campus, unless they are eating.
Authorities also modified the guideline for "certain situations," specifically for P.E., athletics and performing arts programs.
"Our schools reflect our community and there is this virus in our community. So there will be this virus in our schools. But what we can do is make sure that that virus is not transmitted from one person to another in our schools," said Dr. Howard Taras, SDUSD's District Physician.
No matter the updated mask policy, Monday was a day Kristy Drake, a fifth-grade Spanish immersion teacher, had been waiting for.
"Well, I really love shiny backpacks. It's kinda the most fun part. I just love the excitement and the noise and the energy that the kids bring at the beginning of the school year," Drake said.
Drake says the same policy was in place when the students came back last year, and she doesn't expect it to be a problem.
"So, I never had an issue with kids wearing masks. They were perfectly happy to wear masks if it meant they could come to school and be with their friends," Drake said.
The national advocacy group Let Them Breathe, a self-described group of parents "who are concerned about the detrimental effects of masks on their children’s mental, physical, emotional, and social health," called the district's new policy an "unscientific decision" that ignores what they say is a "statistically non-existent risk of outdoor transmission."
SDUSD Board President, Richard Barrera, said he hopes the new practices keep COVID-19 cases low and attendance high.
“All of these layers of strategies, again; ventilation of classrooms, masking, testing, cleaning, vaccination for our students 12 years old and older. These are the strategies that have proved effective to stop the virus from spreading on our campuses,” Barrera said during a Zoom interview with NBC 7 on Friday.
A new testing program was also adopted Thursday night. Barrera said it’s designed to test students who may have been exposed to the virus or are showing symptoms. In addition, it will help lower the risk of outbreaks.
For parents who do not feel comfortable bringing their students back to the classroom, SDUSD is providing an online option for them.
Barrera said the district expects about 90% of students back in the classroom when compared to pre-pandemic registration numbers.
State Superintendent Tony Thurmond said masks, COVID testing and vaccines are keeping kids safe.
Regarding social distancing in schools, Thurmond said face masks are an essential factor.
"It’s a legitimate concern schools historically are cramped spaces so social distancing is not always possible in school environment that’s why the face mask is so important," Thurmond said. "For most school districts it's difficult to maintain 3 feet of distance, not possible at this time, but with masking, COVID testing, air purifiers, all these mitigations are really the combination to help keep kids safe."
SDUSD includes 113 elementary schools, 24 middle schools, 27 high schools, 25 charter schools, 10 alternative schools, and 4 other schools in San Diego. In all, the largest school district in San Diego County serves 121,000 students.