It felt like the first day of school for Ava Kopp.
Despite coming back to campus with less than two months left in her high school career, Kopp was jarred to see the fullness of everyone's faces — albeit behind masks, but no longer as flat images on a small screen. Some she hasn't seen since the start of the pandemic.
"When I walked in the classroom, I went, 'Wow. Not used to being in a classroom setting,'" said Kopp, a senior at Mountain View High School. "There's sort of a buzz around the school right now. Everybody's working and chatting. That was the first time I think in a while that I was exposed to that kind of learning."
On Monday afternoon, the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District reopened its two campuses to half its student population of more than 4,000 and about 83% of its teachers, marking the start of a new chapter for the district's phased reopening plans and a hopeful sign of a return to normal.
While classes were seemingly uneventful, picking up the curriculum right where it left off on Zoom, the day was the result of months of ongoing planning by the district board members and school faculty. It's the result of at least 128 hours of negotiations between the board and teachers union; a mountain of feedback from impassioned parents and students; and more than a year of social distancing, which has led to the vaccination of more than half a million Santa Clara County residents as of April 19. (More than 900,000 residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine.)
"It feels like we have hit a plateau of stability that really has enabled us to move forward with plans," said Leyla Benson, district associate superintendent for personnel. "This has been a continuous effort since last March."
'Grateful for anything'
A small fanfare of students greeted their peers with music and posters in front of Mountain View High School as Principal Michael Jimenez was soaking in the new sight.
It was the first time the principal has seen this much of his student body in person. Jimenez was still fresh to the school as he only joined the administration last July. Monday afternoon, he was like a freshman himself, saying hello and trying to direct students who most likely didn't recognize him.
"I've met just a few of them because I'm new myself," he said. "It's just a matter of time to learn their names and faces."
More than a thousand students of Mountain View High's total student population of about 2,000 opted to return to school for the remaining six weeks of the semester, with about 80 to 90% of about 180 staff members accounted for, according to Jimenez.
It was an achievement that came with a lot of community pressure and clashing politics. And while Jimenez admits that the district office bore most of the burden of dealing with the county and state, he described the long months as an enlightening but also challenging and frustrating experience that he never could have anticipated in his three decades working in education.
"I've always been prepared for an intruder or a fire," he said. "But I never really had to plan for a pandemic."
With the ring of the bell, which many haven't heard since the outset of the health crisis, students dutifully headed to their classes and scanned a QR code posted on the door with their phones. The code linked students to a Google Doc survey with seven health questions — suggesting that students are expected to check their own temperature before they enter class — and asking if they experienced any COVID-19 symptoms in the past two weeks.
In room 513, Ava Kopp and 17 other students were assigned seats for their advanced placement calculus class taught by Jennifer Chiu. Students pulled out their laptops to complete attendance through Canvas, a learning software commonly used at universities and colleges to assign homework online. It's Advanced Placement (AP) exam season, so for the majority of the hour and 15 minutes the district allotted for each of the two class periods held on campus this week, students were left to their own devices to review.
Though most of class was relegated to going back over old material and quiet chatter, Kopp said it was worth climbing out of bed and into jeans just to come back to campus.
"I'm grateful for anything, to be honest," she said. "This is my last year, and I didn't think that we were going to go back in person at all."
Several buildings over, in room 612, River Jones sat through his Spanish 2 class with AirPods in his ears, typing away in front of his laptop and listening to the lecture like the rest of his peers. In those ways, the experience was similar to a class done through Zoom. But as a freshman who started his high school year at home, it was the first time he'd seen his Spanish teacher Abby Stucker in person and only one of a handful of opportunities to set foot on campus.
Jones was one of about a hundred students who participated in the Stable Learning Groups, where students would still log in on Zoom for remote classes, but from school. He came to campus once a week for about a month before spring break.
"Even today, I was just trying to figure out where my classes were," Jones, 14, said. "I asked two people today where they were."
This week — which will only consist of two class periods on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, for a total of five hours of in-person class — was a preview to what the learning experience will be like at least for the remainder of the year, before the district transitions into four full days of in-person instruction starting April 26. Wednesdays will remain "asynchronous" when students work independently at home.
Staff members have a monumental task ahead of them with the new format, which has to remain flexible throughout the course of an ongoing pandemic.
Ben Ortega, lead custodian at Mountain View High School, said it was refreshing to see people back in school, but his job will also be much more intensive as he and his staff will now have to spring into action after each period and wipe down every door, table and light switch on campus.
"Before, it was things like taking out the trash and vacuuming," said Ortega, who has worked at the school since 2005. "But now it's going to be much more hands on."
And as the virus lingers and some kids choose to stay fully remote, teachers will have the responsibility of simultaneously juggling cohorts of students who are in person and online.
Each teacher on Monday made their own minute adjustments to the learning experience — some out of preference, others out of necessity. Several, for example, chose to project their computer screens with the day's lesson and a Zoom gallery of remote students at the front of the class so the students in the classroom don't need their laptops.
During physical education, an instructional video was projected inside the campus's large gym, where students were stretching into yoga poses while in their exercise or regular school clothes. Locker rooms are still restricted for health reasons, so students don't have the space to change into their usual PE outfits, said PE teacher Tami Kittle, who walked around the gym to survey her students' forms.
Others teachers, like Chiu and Stucker, stayed in one corner of their classrooms, flanked by two monitors — one with a camera to provide a live feed of the teacher — and a clear shield between the educator and students.
Easing in and out of Spanish and English, Stucker did what could be described as a careful song and dance with her Spanish class students. As she talked about grammar and infinitive verbs, followed by quick pauses in lecture to explain technical details on how to submit answers online, Stucker rhythmically turned her body between a screen of 16 students, whom she affectionately called "Zoomies," and the 16 pupils in the room.
It's far from an ideal learning situation. Language should be taught in groups where students could constantly face and talk with each other, said Stucker, who has taught at Mountain View High for seven years.
"We just have to lower our expectations," she said. "I would never teach a language this way."
But the barrier is one of many compromises Stucker and other district teachers have accepted in their pursuit of an equitable education for remote and in-person students.
Maddie Connell, a senior at Mountain View High, was one of the students who decided to close out her year from home.
Throughout the pandemic, she maintained her own bubble of a few friends she regularly saw and had to cut back on her activities with her varsity swim and water polo team due to respiratory issues. No one in her family had caught the virus, but Connell said she was concerned for her health and the possibility that some people may be a little casual with the guidelines.
"It just seems like a really scary situation," she said.
Connell has also fully adapted to distance learning — maintaining, for the large part, her grades — and classes on Monday went mostly well, she said. Her dance class was somewhat choppy on Zoom since her teacher was streaming the class from the football field, but she didn't encounter that technical issues elsewhere.
"It's been a pretty fair experience, in my opinion," said Connell, who fully anticipates at least joining her classmates in person for social activities.
In negotiations between district leaders and the District Teachers Association — amounting to 32 days of meetings, each running at least three to four hours long — one priority was to make sure remote students were getting the same educational experience as the students in person, according to David Campbell, president of the teachers union.
"We don't know what caused students to need to stay home, to want to stay home," said Campbell, who also teaches Spanish 3 and AP Spanish literature at Mountain View High. "(But) we didn't want them to feel they were going to get shortchanged. We're not going to do extra fun, cool things, for those in person to reward them and penalize those who are at home."
Campbell said he also "hid in a corner" behind two monitors for his class. At first, he was overwhelmed at the sight of his students, knowing how long they've waited and how much he and other teachers have gone through to get to this day. Technical difficulties also abounded.
"There was a moment in that first class, when I had students in there, where I was kind of flustered — I didn't know where to start and what to do," he said. "And then I'm like, 'Oh yeah, the same thing we do every time: start teaching.'"
In the last several weeks left for the spring semester, Ava Kopp and River Jones, who are members of the school's Associated Student Body, described very different immediate futures.
Kopp is in the process of choosing between her top three colleges. And unlike other districts still working out a confirmation for some large events, Kopp's senior class will also have an in-person prom and graduation ceremony, with other gatherings scattered in between.
Reflecting on the past year and a half, she considers herself one of the lucky ones who wasn't severely impacted by the coronavirus beyond a few scares and quarantines for extended family members. Kopp said she thought she adjusted relatively well to distant learning.
"I saw a lot of my friends who had previously been doing well in school start to drop off a little bit, because nobody was there to provide motivation for them as in-person school does," Kopp said. "Something that I noticed about distance learning is that you really have to be a very independent student."
For Jones, the pandemic stripped him of his rite of passage for leaving Crittenden Middle School and entering high school. He said that he felt a bit robbed of his school experience, including a chance to meet more of his new classmates. Only about half of his peers from Crittenden went to Mountain View High while the other half went to Los Altos, he said.
But he's optimistic.
The Stable Learning Groups was a small opportunity to familiarize himself with the campus; baseball season is just ahead for the freshman; and as an active member of the Associated Student Body, Jones helped plan some activities that he couldn't work on before. There's a socially distanced class picnic he's particularly excited about and hopes will offer a proper introduction to his classmates.
"I have high hopes for the rest of my freshman year and grades in the future," he said.
With high-pitched excitement, Stucker greeted her former students, elbow bumping them as they updated her on college acceptances and other personal news. Stucker appeared eager to be back in class and said she was happy with the outcomes of the negotiations between the teachers and district.
"There's no part of it where I feel like teachers have been slighted," she said.
A memorandum of understanding between the union and district has been signed and finalized, according to Campbell. But the two parties remain in discussion for several leftover details such as salary and benefits.
In the upcoming months, Campbell said he'll be keeping an eye on cases at the school and potential outbreaks. But mostly his concerns are over leaving his mask on and teaching his kids.
"I always get kind of choked up because our students are so resilient," he said. "They're so understanding and patient and just kind and forgiving with us, as we're kind of clumsily trying to reinvent the wheel."