'Lots of smiles behind those masks': A look inside the return to campus for some San Jose students

'Lots of smiles behind those masks': A look inside the return to campus for some San Jose students
Scene in front of a Union School District school this week in San Jose
By Laila Weir - Published on March 11, 2021.

At 8:10 a.m. Monday morning, third- through fifth-grade students were lined up outside San Jose’s Carlton Avenue School for the first time in nearly a year. They stood attentively six feet apart, snugly fitted masks completing their back-to-school outfits for a “first day of school” that came seven months into the academic year.

“I was really excited!” said fifth-grader Kyle A. afterwards.

The city’s Union School District is phasing back in-person learning with a hybrid model that has some kids spending two and a half hours per day on campus, four days per week. The model allows for families and educators either to remain wholly remote or to participate in the in-person program alongside some continuing distance-learning elements, so some children and some teachers are remaining off-campus for the time being.

For those who did go back, they returned to a version of school that would have been unimaginable a year ago.

Masked teachers and students gathered in cohorts of just 14 or 15 children, keeping their distance from one another. Clear plastic created a screen around a teacher’s desk. There was no lunch or snack, no mingling on the playground, no gaggles of kids around water fountains or in the bathroom. And, of course, lots and lots of hand sanitizing.


“There’s a whole new set of rules,” shared Micah M., who’s in the fourth grade. “Stay six feet apart. You never can take your mask off unless you ask a teacher and they let you go outside to take a break. You have to ask if anyone is in the bathroom, and if you hear two ‘yeses’ you have to wait outside.”

Nevertheless, there were rave reviews from several Carlton students who agreed to be interviewed by Hoodline about their first day back.

“It was one of the best days of my life!” said third-grade student Oliver T. “I talked with some of my friends after school and me and all my friends loved it.”

“It felt good! A little bit weird and strange,” reflected Kyle.

The best part? All the students interviewed agreed that it was seeing and talking to classmates and teachers in person.

“I got to see my teacher,” enthused Micah. “She’s a lot taller than on Zoom.”


Under the district’s current hybrid learning program, students who’ve opted to join in-person classes attend either a morning or afternoon session on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. All eat lunch at home.

The students’ two and a half hours at school are complemented by assignments to complete independently from home, and Wednesdays are distance-learning days for all students.

The district’s model is notably flexible: Some teachers are teaching two in-person cohorts, others are only teaching remotely, and some have both in-person and distance cohorts.

Teachers with health concerns who aren’t ready to return to the classroom are even teaching in-person students, thanks to a creative solution. A substitute supervises the students in the classroom, while their main teacher video-calls in to give them lessons via a large screen.

Students described a heady first day of spending time around so many other people — off the computer — with high points being recess, and doing real art with teachers.

“Being able to play on the playgrounds was the best!” said Micah. “I could finally play on the playgrounds! I went on the monkey bars, climbed up one of the poles to the monkey bars, and did the zipline.”

Micah shared that he’d really, really missed his school's playgrounds. Describing his experience of the year of distancing in order to contain the deadly pandemic, the boy struck a resigned but plaintive note: “I can’t see my friends. I can’t go on the playgrounds. It’s really tempting to go on the playgrounds, but you just can’t.”

Oliver echoed a similar sentiment when asked about the hardest part of schools being closed over the past year. “Exercise,” he replied — or rather the difficulty of getting it during distance learning. “It’s not like you have a recess and you have a playground that you can go play on.”

Under the current protocol, class cohorts go to recess together in a designated part of the play yard, away from other cohorts.

“I missed being able to have recess with all the other kids,” Kyle admitted. “We had assigned spots that we were allowed to go and places we weren’t allowed to go.”

Several of the children and their parents said that, while they continue to be vigilant about safety measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, 100-percent distance learning just wasn’t working for them.  

“He’s been eager to go back for the last couple months,” Micah’s mother, Heather M., said of her son. “He got to the point where he hated Zoom, hated school, hated everything about it.”

The working mother of three said Tuesday that the return to school wrought an immediate change in her son. “Just two days in, we’re seeing quite a bit of difference,” she said. “Overall attitude is better, he’s a lot more eager, he’s able to complete his work a lot faster.”

Another parent said that her child had become so frustrated with distance learning that he was talking about dropping out, only to return from the first day on campus and declare: “That was fun. I’m so happy!”

“I am absolutely thrilled to be back in the classroom,” commented Ryan Phillips, who teaches fifth grade at Carlton. “As a teacher, part of me has been missing over the past year not being in the classroom with students, and being back with the students in class has made me feel whole again.”

How were his students? “Maybe a little nervous the first day with all the new protocols but other than that, they are so happy to get back to school,” said Phillips. “Lots of smiles behind those masks.”

For Oliver’s mother, those smiles validated the decision to allow her children to return to in-person learning.

“You agonize as a parent whether or not to do it, and then you go and see all the smiles,” she mused. “And you think … all these months we’ve waited.”

One of the children interviewed for this article is a relative of the author. Hoodline has identified minors and their parents by their first name and last initial only to protect their privacy.