Apr. 13—North High School Senior Class President Michelle Sosa wasn’t quite sure whether she should be celebrating her return to campus Monday or mourning the loss of most of her senior year.

A little of both, it seemed.

“We didn’t get the senior year we planned,” she said, referring to the lengthy campus closures caused by COVID-19 shutdowns that began last spring.

“But honestly,” she said, “it’s a blessing to be here.”

The Kern High School District opened its doors on Monday for its first in-person classes for some students in months.

Seniors at the Oildale campus and other KHSD schools were invited back on Monday in what will kick off a staggered reopening for all grade levels in April, with freshmen coming back next week, and sophomores and juniors arriving the following week.

At North, the students arrived to a red carpet welcome, said Principal Mark Balch.

Many were elated to be back.

“It’s honestly been hard,” Balch said of the yearlong interruption of the normal learning process.

“We feel that the longer we go on with distance learning, the harder it will be for students — and not just academically,” the principal said.

Acquiring social skills is also a big part of high school, he said.

After going so long without “live” schooling, some students are suffering from anxiety and depression.

At least three school officials and employees said more kids are reporting having suicidal thoughts, or worse, are actually attempting suicide.

“Kids are kind of burnt out, pushing away,” Balch said. “They’re just done, mentally and emotionally.

“We call it being ‘Zoomed out,'” he said of the fatigue that sets in after months of only communicating on a video screen.

“It’s been a struggle,” he said.

So the staff and faculty did everything they could to make the transition smooth and painless.

The school’s counseling staff and social worker, Michael Pawloski, put together calming kits to hand out to students. Each kit contained a stress ball for squeezing, slime or putty, and fidget toys that in any other year would have driven teachers crazy.

“These are the toys removed from students two years ago,” quipped English teacher Troy Guess.

Now the school is giving them to students, he said, grinning.

It’s just another indication that the world is spinning sideways.

Students have been on a “roller coaster” for the past year, Guess said. When the first school closures came in March 2020, a lot of students believed that school would reopen after spring break. But that didn’t happen.

An attempted reopening in the fall was also a non-starter after another surge in new cases forced administrators to send students back home.

Guess, who also coaches sports, said it’s definitely a challenge for teachers, coaches and students. He said he thinks the students will benefit from the reopening.

If Kern experiences another surge in new COVID-19 cases, then schools may have to close again. But right now, county health officials are seeing improvements.

“Kern County’s case rate and testing positivity rate continue to improve, indicating that COVID transmission is decreasing in Kern County,” said Michelle Corson, spokeswoman for the Kern County Public Health Services Department.

“However,” Corson added, “with the identification of COVID variant B.1.1.7 in Kern County, we ask our community to stay the course, practicing healthy habits and to get vaccinated if 16 years or older.”

The schools in the high school district are doing much to mitigate risk.

Quick serve pre-packaged meals are being served to promote distancing. Distributed lunch lines will also help students keep their distance.

Plexiglass wellness shields are ubiquitous — including around student desks. Drinking fountains and lockers are wrapped up tight and closed for use.

Each school site has a COVID-19 Site-Specific Prevention Plan available on the school website, so students, parents and visitors can be prepared.

Campuses have added health screening technologies, such as no-touch temperature readings for those entering. Path of travel is often marked to avoid unnecessary interaction, and face coverings are the norm.

Senior Class President Sosa hasn’t been wasting much time. She’s landed a Navy ROTC scholarship and now she’s deciding between the U.S. Naval Academy or the New York Maritime College.

“I’m leaving in July,” she said.

Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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