Schools Celebrate Full Return to Campuses

Photo courtesy Sarah Varosky
Sarah Varosky drops off her son Eliott at Robert Louis Stevenson Elementary on Monday, which was the Burbank Unified School District’s first full day of in-person instruction since the pandemic began 17 months ago.

Superintendent Matt Hill of the Burbank Unified School District goes into every new school year feeling butterflies in his stomach, but he said the nerves he felt on Monday were replaced with joy when he saw students and teachers connecting on the first day of full in-person instruction in 17 months.

“It definitely was an exciting week,” Hill told the Leader on Friday. “The energy on the campuses was just tremendous. Our students are just so happy to be back. I talked to so many teachers and staff from the schools and they’re just thrilled to finally reconnect with the students.”
Interacting with students and teachers was a breath of fresh air for Hill, who has worked tirelessly — along with district staff — to make sure such a day was possible. Every school site had personal protective equipment and protocols in place to ensure the safety of students and employees and mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
“Obviously, all of us want to get to where we don’t think of a pandemic, so safety is still top of the mind,” Hill said. “I was really impressed with how the staff followed protocols.”
As of Thursday, the BUSD has had only 14 students and three employees test positive for the coronavirus so far. The district has 15,312 students enrolled this year and 1,271 employees.
“Everyone is going to have cases,” Hill said. “We just have to make sure those cases don’t spread. It’s another reminder that anyone that needs to get vaccines should get vaccinated. Our nurses and administrators have really worked quickly to identify cases to make sure we’re taking precautions and quarantining close contacts. We have not had [COVID-19] spread.”
Despite such assurances, some parents and guardians continue to express their concerns about the protocols in place to site administrators and district staff. Hill empathized with them during a Board of Education meeting on Thursday, sharing that one of his two sons is not eligible for the vaccine and it makes him wonder if he is going to be safe at school.
“What a scary thing that we have to go through as parents and guardians,” he said during the meeting, which took place in Burbank City Hall council chambers. “And so we are entrusting our most valuable thing in life, our children, against a pandemic that we’re still trying to understand. And we hear about people disagreeing with the safety protocols. Staff understands that because every single child in our district is like our own child. That’s why we work here.”

Photo courtesy of Dara Sutton
Finley Sutton was one of more than 15,000 Burbank students to return to school on Monday.

Providing a safe, clean environment is already taking a toll on classified employees, who are working harder due to a more demanding cleaning schedule. Louis Ayala, a California Schools Employee Association executive representative, asked the board and the community for help in accomplishing the “daunting” tasks placed on custodians.
“We’re at the breaking point,” Hill said. “We are already at the breaking point because this has been 18 months and it gets harder and harder every day and our commitment to those children and those students hasn’t diminished. It’s increased.”
BUSD is working on a policy that would require all employees to be vaccinated — except those with religious or medical exemptions — and is looking into a similar mandate for students. Board member Steve Ferguson requested that district staff look into such a possibility and schedule it as an agenda item in a future meeting.
A Burbank parent requested that testing be required for all students, a move that Hill said would be considered should there be an alarming rise in cases within the district.
“Obviously these are really challenging motions to make,” Ferguson said, “but I think after a really challenging opening week where we are absolutely working daily to do our best, to preserve safe learning environments and safe working environments for all of our students and staff, this is more critical than ever.
“[A minority] are keeping the rest of us from having common sense and peace of mind and easy conversations about education with our kids. We’ve already lost a year. In my book, we gotta lock it down for the kids so that we aren’t dealing with this. … I don’t want to leave people behind but this is a new working condition to work with our children. Our community expects that from us, and I’ve heard that loud and clear.”