Mindy Ahrens, principal of Benchley Weinberger Elementary School in the Lake Murray area, stands near her Welcome Back to School sign.
Mindy Ahrens, principal of Benchley/Weinberger Elementary School , stands near her Welcome Back to School sign. Photo by Chris Stone

After more than a year of empty classrooms, Principal Mindy Ahrens watched as children flowed back to her Lake Murray area school Monday. It was such an emotional day, she was near tears four times.

Tens of thousands of San Diego Unified students finally had face time with their teachers in person —not on a screen. Parents were given the option of taking their children to school or keeping them home for the rest of the school year, 44 days.

And with the reopening of schools, Ahrens hopes for a return of kids loving school.

Ahrens, principal of Benchley/Weinberger Elementary School, reflected on Day One of the return.

“My heart was just bursting,” she said. “I was not nervous last night. I knew that we were ready. And I was just so excited, and I just wanted to see how excited they were, and it was wonderful just seeing them all come up, the smiles on their faces and I think that the parents were nervous, but the kids were excited.”

Ahrens continued: “It was just wonderful. And then walking into the classrooms for the first time today after a year, over a year of being closed, hearing the sounds of their voices and their laughter, they were so thrilled to be here. I almost started crying four times today.”

Preparation for this first day post COVID-19 closings was a challenge.

State Department of Health rules require masks and five to six feet between students in the classroom.

School employees brought out their measuring tapes as they removed furniture, added single desks and rearranged the classrooms, said Ahrens, who was assigned to the school a month before the COVID shutdown.

Hepa air purifiers and hand sanitizer were added to the classrooms.

The school’s biggest concern was whether enough space existed for every child for a full school week — four days at school. (Fridays are online only.)

In contrast to a district official’s estimate that half of students would return to school, 94% of Benchley/Weinberger students were returning with 100% of teachers and staff.

But with a creative staff, everyone had a spot, she said.

Ahrens’ biggest concerns Monday were the “transitions” — when parents dropped kids off and picked them up and the moves from recess to lunchtime without mixing classes.

To abide by health rules, children kept to their classroom “cohort” groups and weren’t combined with other groups.

But: “Today went extremely smoothly,” the principal said. “It was awesome.”

Ahrens credits her faculty and staff.

“As a principal, I’m just so proud of my staff because this has been a beast to put all of this together with COVID,” she said.

However, she was equally impressed by pupils at the K-5 magnet school.

Asked what impressed her on the first day, she said the kids’ patience and kindness.

“They knew that we were trying to put this together for all of them, and they were just as sweet…patient, kind” every time that the school dealt with logistics, the principal said. “They were so easygoing and very patient for us.”

The patience was needed when teachers had challenges with the hybrid nature of the classroom, dealing with the technology as an average of three pupils per class remained at home.

Faces of the children at home were projected on the white digital board, so they could interact with their classmates.

Ahrens said the staff wasn’t sure how the emotions about returning to school would play out in children’s behavior.

Although there was anxiety in the air, the children settled in quickly with their friends.

Since it was Day One, some of the “basics” had to be addressed, including how to wash your hands.

“We had to talk about hugging. Air hugs, got to have air hugs,” she explained, crossing her arms on her chest.

And then there was “airplane arms” — meaning children stretched out their arms to keep their proper distance from others, Ahrens said.

Also, school staff would tap their own noses to signal that a child’s mask was slipping below the bridge of the nose.

“The public thinks it’s a lot harder for kids to keep their masks on,” she said. “They get used to it and it’s actually pretty easy. They adapt so well.”

Teachers talked about the health reasons behind the rules, Ahrens said. 

Asked how her teachers fared the first day, she said, laughing: “They’re tired.”

But the children’s need to return to the classroom was apparent, the principal said.

The social and emotional pieces were missing.

“They need to play. They need to love school again,” she said. “We started the fall on kind of a high note, and we were excited even though we were all doing Zoom. It was still exciting in school.”

But as the months went by, the school saw a decline in “excitement about learning, an engagement, and more and more screens were going off,” the principal continued. “More and more kids were turning off their cameras on Zoom. We just kind of saw the excitement go out of it. There is only so much you can do on Zoom.” 

“Now,” she said, “we can bring that excitement back to learning.”

Ahrens spoke in the school office about the emotional day.

“As a principal, my heart was so full and happy today, just seeing smiles on faces, seeing my teachers with smiles on their faces,” she said. “They got a boost from seeing their kids.”

“This is why we went into this profession,” she said. “We did not go into this profession to be online. We love being surrounded by the smiles of kids, so we’re happy to be back.” 

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