Brook Knoll kindergarten teacher Krista Patterson walks her students out of school.
Brook Knoll kindergarten teacher Krista Patterson walks her students out to their waiting families after their first day back in classrooms on Wednesday.
(Nick Ibarra / Lookout Santa Cruz

‘Labor of love’: Scotts Valley kindergarteners return to classrooms, leading off wave of partial reopenings

Kindergarteners in the Scotts Valley Unified School District returned to in-person learning under a hybrid model on Wednesday, a milestone moment for the county that follows a year of remote learning.

Kindergarten students walked into classrooms for the first time in a year Wednesday morning in Scotts Valley Unified School District — a long-awaited return that is leading off a wave of partial school reopenings across Santa Cruz County.

At Brook Knoll Elementary School, about 50 returning students and their families were met with balloons and excitement.

“I’m just so stoked to have the kids back,” said Brook Knoll principal Joshua Wahl. “No one in education got into this career to sit behind a computer. We’re in it for the kids, and without having those daily interactions with them, the job loses a lot of reward.”

The moment was bittersweet for stay-at-home mom Mabel Leathem after a year of mother-daughter bonding while helping her child learn from home. But she said remote learning can’t offer the same kind of social development, and she has confidence in the COVID-19 safety protocols in place at the school.

No one in education got into this career to sit behind a computer. We’re in it for the kids, and without having those daily interactions with them, the job loses a lot of reward.

— Brook Knoll principal Joshua Wahl

“Everything looks safe, spread out, and everyone’s protected,” Leathem said.

And her daughter? “She was so ready,” Leathem said. “She’s really anxious today. But I’m sure she’ll be another kid when she comes back out, because just to know that she could go to the schoolyard, the playground — that was a big deal for her.”

Small groups of high-need students have been learning in person at many schools since October. But the return to classrooms for Scotts Valley Unified School District kindergarteners marks the first step in the plan to reopen classrooms to elementary students across Santa Cruz County by May 1, under various forms of a hybrid in-person and remote learning model.

Mountain Elementary, and Pacific Elementary — both small, one-school districts — start their phased return to their classrooms on Monday.

Santa Cruz County’s expected transition into the less restrictive “red tier” of California’s Blueprint for Safer Economy...

Santa Cruz City Schools will start to reopen under its hybrid model March 15. Pajaro Valley Unified, the largest district in the county, is last in line, planning to start its own phased return on April 5.

Families can opt to continue with fully remote learning at all 10 districts. At Brook Knoll, roughly 30% of students are holding off on returning to classrooms, according to Wahl.

Most districts are splitting their students into two groups who will spend two days in-person and two days learning remotely.

Scotts Valley Unified’s kindergarteners, however, are back in their classrooms each morning Monday through Thursday.

Districts across California are operating under a patchwork of learning models for their elementary students, ranging from full in-person learning — mostly in rural regions of the state — to hybrid, to fully remote.

Pressure is mounting to return the state’s youngest students to classrooms. Earlier this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature announced a deal tying $2 billion in state funding to an April 1 deadline to reopen classrooms to student in kindergarten through second grade.

In Santa Cruz County, reopening plans got back on track last month after county education officials reached an agreement with Dignity Health to vaccinate teachers and other school workers.

Staff vaccinations aren’t required to reopen elementary schools. But their availability was a focal point of advocacy for unions representing teachers and support staff.

Brook Knoll kindergarten teacher Krista Patterson, 67, is retiring in June and was eager to end her career with students back in the classroom. She received her second vaccine dose last week.

Without it, she said she wouldn’t be back in the classrooms.

“I just wasn’t going to take any chances,” Patterson said. “As much as I love teaching, I had to be safe. So once I got the vaccine, I was all good.”

At nearby Vine Hill Elementary, about 50 kindergarteners also returned to classrooms Wednesday morning alongside a group of about a dozen transitional kindergarten students.

Scotts Valley Unified School District Superintendent Tanya Krause was bouncing back and forth between both schools Wednesday, talking to families, staff and the news media — and soaking in a moment that has been a long time in the making.

Schools first closed their classrooms in response to the then-surging pandemic in Santa Cruz County on March 16, 2020.


COVID K-12, Lookout’s overview of COVID-19’s impact on education, is among eight Lookout initiatives documenting all aspects of the pandemic this year. For more, go to our COVID 2021 section, sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter here, and leave feedback and ask questions at the end of this story.

“We have been preparing almost a year for this day,” Krause said. “It’s been a lot of hard work from a lot of people in our district, and I can’t express enough appreciation for the staff who have done whatever they could to make it safe for students to return to campus.”

Krause credited her staff’s speedy submission of a state-mandated safety plan — and a close working relationship with the teachers’ union — with allowing Scotts Valley schools to reopen slightly sooner than neighboring districts.

“It was a little emotional, actually finally having it happen,” Krause said. “And it felt like a labor of love — that everything was worth it when you saw those little kids come back onto campus and be excited to be there.”