School milestones – from first day of kindergarten to freshman year – will happen online for Inland students

It’s 7 a.m. on the first day of school for San Bernardino City Unified students and instead of welcoming hundreds of balls of energy back to Serrano Middle School after a refreshing summer break, first-year principal Erin Freeman and her assistant principal are alone in front of an empty campus.

The buzz of a new school year is far from Highland on this Monday morning, as it will be for all Inland cities in the coming days and weeks. After forcing school closures in spring, the coronavirus pandemic has cast a shadow over the fall, requiring school districts up and down the state to begin the 2020-21 academic year virtually.

Freeman, as a result, begins her tenure with no precedent, no example of how to be an effective principal during a public-health crisis that has changed what education looks like in 2020.

“Every year is a chance to restart, to rejuvenate, and I totally did see myself out in front of campus talking to parents, to kids on the first day,” said Freeman, who, at 44, begins her 18th year with the San Bernardino City Unified School District. “I’m totally going to miss it, being with kids, but one of my main focuses now is trying to come up with ways to authentically still create those exchanges, so when they do come back, we have some structures built for those relationships …

“Once we overcome the initial shock,” Freeman added, “it’ll be time to push forward, and as leaders, I believe it’s our job to lead through distraction.”

In the same way rising coronavirus cases and hospitalizations deprived Inland students of year-end traditions such as prom, grad night and graduation, recent spikes have seized rites of passage long associated with kids returning to school for a new year.

Be they toddlers starting kindergarten, teens beginning or wrapping up high school or college freshmen studying far from the universities they had every intention of attending before the pandemic swept the country, these novice virtual learners now can only make the most of this most unorthodox start to fall.

“I’m definitely going to take the time to learn more about how studying online works,” said Isabella Reyes, a freshman-to-be at Roosevelt High School in Eastvale. “I also think this is really going to be beneficial because if this happens in the future, or we go back to school and start remote again, it’ll be a good learning experience for all of us.”

No first-day-of-kindergarten photo

Menifee parents Matthew, 30, and Tina Kriste, 28, have a collection of photos of their son, Jaxon, standing in front of school on the first day of class.

Try as they might to get one later this fall, “it’s definitely not going to be the same,” Tina Kriste said.

With junior preschool, preschool and transitional kindergarten behind him, Jaxon, 5, will start virtual kindergarten at Evans Ranch Elementary School in Menifee on Friday, Aug. 14.

“What I think he’ll miss most is the social interaction you get from being around other children,” Tina Kriste said. “I don’t have too many concerns for his education … but he does his best in a school setting.”

In the months since schools abruptly closed throughout the country, Kriste, a stay-at-home mom of three young children, said she has seen a noticeable difference in her son’s behavior.

“He almost doesn’t know how to act around kids anymore,” she said. “He gets too hyper, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not who he was before. He was really chill, very laid back. Now what he wants to do has to be done, and he almost gets upset when somebody doesn’t want to play.

“He’s definitely missing that stimuli he gets from other children.”

Despite his age, Tina Kriste said Jaxon has grasped the magnitude of the situation.

After all, this raging pandemic has claimed his frequent Knott’s Berry Farm trips, his school fun, his patience.

As she embarks on this first school year with Jaxon learning from home, Tina Kriste’s heart aches for her son, who always looked forward to standing in front of school on the first day of a new year, lunchbox in hand, new clothes head-to-toe, hair freshly cut, smiling ear-to-ear for a picture before disappearing into a sea of children.


“He’s always been so excited about first days, so it’s going to be a bummer,” she said. “But eventually he’ll have another first day, hopefully, in the future.”

Going away to college on hold

Makyla Leyvas wants to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

But not just any peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Quoting the 1985 classic movie “St. Elmo’s Fire,” Leyvas, a recent Redlands High School graduate, wants to make one in the middle of the night, with ingredients she bought, pulled from her refrigerator, inside her apartment.

While Leyvas may be able to do just that in the coming months, the 18-year-old Redlands native won’t be doing it at San Francisco State University, where she had committed to play softball before the university went exclusively online this summer.

Leyvas, whose senior year of high school was cut short due to the pandemic, now will virtually attend and play softball at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa.

“I’ll miss living in San Francisco,” said Leyvas, who plans on moving into new dorms near the community college in September. “It looked amazing. At first I didn’t want to go that far … but as soon as I got to San Francisco, it was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I could live right here. Everything was everywhere. You could walk everywhere.

“My mom was always nervous about it,” she added, “but I told her to let me just try it for a year. ‘Let me prove to you I can do it.’”

Leyvas first saw independence while visiting her older sister at Concordia University in Irvine.

There, she watched the person she said she looked up to most walk around campus freely, meet friends whenever and wherever they wanted, make her own social schedule.

As recently as a month and a half ago, Leyvas was looking forward to having that freedom herself, no matter the obstacles that arise for college freshmen living away from home for the first time.

Now, she must wait to make that perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

“I wanted to be able to walk out my front door and meet my friends for coffee,” she said. “I wanted to go open the cupboard and know what it’s like not having anything in it. I just want to grow up. I need to grow up. I need to get out of my house, where there’s a full medicine cabinet of anything I need and a store in the cupboard.

“I want to learn to take care of myself.”

Safety fears for freshman year

Shortly after completing eighth grade at River Heights Intermediate School in Eastvale, Reyes, the incoming Roosevelt High freshman, started a petition online challenging the Corona-Norco Unified School District’s decision to reopen schools in fall.

In addition to voicing her concerns with the idea of up to 35 students sitting in a 20-by-20 classroom with desks about 3 feet apart, Reyes, 14, dutifully noted that Riverside County at the time was a national coronavirus hot spot.

A traditional return to school for the Inland Empire’s largest public school system would put “students, staff and anyone else they come into contact with at risk for transmitting or becoming infected with COVID-19,” she wrote, “especially if the district doesn’t plan to follow proper health and safety guidelines.”

More than 1,000 people – from teens to parents to teachers – signed Reyes’ petition.

“I didn’t expect such a positive response,” she said.

Three weeks after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced all districts in counties on the state’s COVID-19 watch list – including Riverside and San Bernardino counties – would have to begin the new school year online, Reyes, who begins class Tuesday, Aug. 11, reflected on missing out on all the tentpole activities traditionally planned for high school newcomers.

“In middle school, I didn’t go to a lot of the events,” she said, “so I don’t feel like I’ll be missing out as much as other students, but I was excited to see what those experiences were like.”

While not the same as experiencing them on her way to a new campus for the first time, Reyes, who, like many student-athletes, eagerly awaits the return of high school sports, still expects back-to-school butterflies to welcome her to the next chapter of her life.

“I’m definitely nervous for the first day,” she said. “I don’t know how it’s going to work or what will happen, but I think I’ll do well.”

Senior-year memories to start online

Redlands teens Abby, 17, and David Fitch, 17, are optimistic they’ll be back on campus sometime this school year.

But as summer turns into fall, the two can’t help but think of all they’ll be missing out on starting their senior years at home.

A four-year cheerleader at Redlands High, David Fitch, for one, was looking forward to being on the sideline for the first football game of the season, a touchstone back-to-school activity for the students in the bleachers as much as the athletes on the field.

However, the pandemic delayed the start of football season to January, nearly five months later than originally scheduled, meaning Fitch must wait some time to take lead of his squad as captain.

“I’m going to miss seeing everyone out there cheering,” he said.

Abby Fitch, too, would have been on the sideline this fall, though harder to spot than her younger brother.

She was to be Redlands’ school mascot this season.

“I’m obviously sad I can’t go to school in person and see everyone again,” she said, “but I’m kind of excited to see how everything plays out.”

The start of a new school year always has been reason for high schools to celebrate.

Between pep rallies, spirit week, the occasional DJ spinning during lunch and pop-up ice cream socials, there never has been a shortage of campus activities, at least at Redlands High, to start the year off right, the Fitches said.

Still excited to start their senior years remotely Thursday, Aug. 13, Abby and David Fitch await what virtual festivities school officials concoct to keep that fraternal spirit alive.

“Hanging out with friends, it’s just hard when you’re being forced to be in the house all day,” Abby Fitch said. “It’s nice to go out, hang out with people you don’t see every single day. Whether it’s hanging out after school or just walking around, just seeing people I don’t get to see 24/7 makes (school) all worthwhile.”

Rookie teacher begins behind computer

Teachers, too, will miss out on back-to-school traditions.

Some, before experiencing them even once.

Teaching from a distance “is just different from the dream of decorating your classroom, placing name tags on desks, meeting parents at back-to-school night,” said Vanessa Gonzalez Pacheco, one of 13 rookie teachers with the Rialto Unified School District in San Bernardino County. “That contact, the relationships you build by meeting people in person, that’ll be missing with this virtual experience.

“I can still meet parents online,” she added, “but what I remember as a kid – meeting my teachers, my parents meeting my teachers, them having cookies, socializing – it’ll be different.”

Inspired by viral videos, Gonzalez, a Rialto resident and product of Rialto schools, planned to have a personalized handshake for each kid in her class.

“Obviously, I won’t be able to do that now,” she said, “because I won’t see them or be able to touch them.”

Gonzalez, 24, will begin her teaching career at Boyd Elementary School when Rialto returns from summer break Monday, Aug. 10. While leading instruction from inside an empty classroom – and, on occasion, her studio apartment – wasn’t exactly how she pictured cutting her teeth, she has found ways to bridge the distance between herself and her students.

This past Friday, Aug. 7, during a drive-thru back-to-school parade at Boyd, Gonzalez distributed goodie bags to her fourth-graders, as well as handmade postcards welcoming them back to class.

Additionally, Gonzalez said when school starts, she and her virtual learners will document what it’s like navigating these unprecedented times.

“I want to create this contact on a different level,” she said, “rather than just electronically.”