Santa Monica principals and teachers are eager to welcome students back to campus Monday after nearly an entire school year of distance-learning.

The Board of Education ratified an agreement between SMMUSD and SMMCTA that allows for students in grades seventh through twelfth to fully return to in-person learning on Monday, April 26. An option to remain in distance learning-only is available for those families who choose not to return for in-person learning, but district staff, like Chief Operations Officer Carey Upton, have been hard at work ensuring campuses are as safe as possible for the return of scholars who do opt to return this coming week.

As soon as students enter campus Monday, they will be required to scan a QR code that will pull up a COVID-19 screening questionnaire. Students have the ability to complete it in the car as they pull up to campus, but that’s far from the only safety measure taken at Santa Monica High School.

It was only a short time ago that district leaders thought it would be impossible for a full return this year, but decreased social-distancing requirements now allow for everybody to come back since local schools can handle the spacing with a little reconfiguring of classrooms, Upton said during Friday’s tour when he highlighted the many changes and upgrades that were recently made to make students and parents feel safer about the upcoming return.

“It’s looking a little sparse right now because not everybody has returned, but you can see desks are set up, we’ve measured everything, and the technology allows for teachers to conduct online and in-person lessons simultaneously,” Upton said, mentioning local high schools have seen less students return than elementary and middle schools.

Even so, the energy is vibrant as teachers like Jessi Sunseri eagerly await to see and hear their students in person for the first time. As an Art teacher, she is ecstatic to see her students’ work process for the first time since muted Zoom mics and videos have made it nearly impossible for classes to fully connect.

Band and chorus instructors have also had a hard time since the County’s department of public health still does not allow for certain instruments to be played indoors. But Upton said musicians will have the ability to wheel a piano and other instruments outside so practice can resume safely.

“The other thing we’ve done in all of our spaces is upgrade the ventilation. We’ve added ionization to all of the classrooms that had upgraded air conditioning systems,” Upton said, “and then we’ve brought in large air scrubbers temper filters to cover the other areas of need.”

Portable sinks, hand sanitizer bottles and other supplies can also be spotted throughout campus, including in the library where Librarian Dana Bart-Bell and school staff have reshuffled couches, chairs and shelves to make the area more comfortable and COVID-friendly.

Upton said he is optimistic that approximately 30-40 percent of students will show to class during the first week they are allowed back. And he hopes the number will increase to 60 to 70 percent of Samohi students once families see the safety precautions work.

Assistant Principal Tristan Komlos noted students have been good about understanding the safety requirements that must be upheld once they’re on campus grounds. A quick walk through the quad and various grass areas, where students are masked and spaced apart while they talk, supports her statement.

“This year has been so hard on everybody, so the idea that we can get kids back to school, it’s truly amazing,” Upton said.

Samohi Principal Antonio Shelton agreed.

“Our students have continued to excel academically despite the stressors around them. They have inspired me and our staff throughout this pandemic,” he said. “Having them return to campus has been the bright spot in our year thus far.”

Komlos added it is great to have students on campus again because the energy level is what keeps teachers and principals going.

“It is so gratifying to see students returning to our campuses after more than a year away,”

Board President Jon Kean said. “I can’t thank our principals, teachers, and staff enough for their Herculean efforts to reopen our schools and place the needs of all students first.”

Brennon@smdp.com