The carpool lane at Wildwood Elementary was packed Monday with vehicles stretching around the block filled with children who for the first time since March 11 being dropped off for in-person classes.

“Julian, how are you!” Assistant Principal Terrie Junda exclaimed as a car pulled up to the Baton Rouge public school's rear entrance. “It’s your favorite person in the school. I’m so happy to see you!"

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Julian, who is 8 and entering third grade, came to school with younger sister Kayla, just 4 years old and entering school in person for the first time. They carried with them plastic bags full of hand sanitizer and sanitizer spray, gifts for their teachers.

Their mother, Keyosha Thompson, said she works at a grocery store and has been stocking up for months on cleaning supplies since the coronavirus pandemic began in the spring.

“I want to make sure not only are (my kids) OK, but the rest of their class is OK,” Thompson explained.

The mother said the children are happy to return to school, especially because virtual education was particularly taxing for Kayla: “She’s too young to be sitting in front of the computer.”

At the same, Thompson said she was a bit apprehensive about the risks of her children attending school in person.

“They are eventually going to have to go school five days a week given what’s going on,” Thompson said. “So all I can do is teach them the proper way to be as careful and clean as possible while away from home."

Monday was back-to-school day during a school year that already is more than a month under way.

For East Baton Rouge Parish public schools, it was just a partial reopening, applying only to elementary schools. Middle and high school students won’t come back to their school buildings for two more weeks.

And in-person is only twice-a-week to start, with the rest of the week virtual, what’s known as a hybrid model. Daily face-to-face instruction in East Baton Rouge is not starting until Oct. 5 for elementary schools and Oct. 19 for middle and high schools.

Monday was even more unusual in being just a half day, thanks to the approach of Hurricane Sally. East Baton Rouge Parish schools have decided that Tuesday will be a normal day of school, after Sally took a more eastward path.

Wildwood Elementary Principal Daniel Edwards said his teachers have worked hard to stand up virtual instruction, but, especially with young children, it’s less successful when it comes to teaching foundational skills such as reading and writing.

“It’s a big advantage to have them face-to-face where you can lay your eyes on them and develop relationships with them,” Edwards said.

Carlos Velazquez wishes daily, face-to-face instruction would start right away. He said his daughter, who is in first grade, is too young for virtual learning and that it’s been hard on parents like him.

“I kind of wish once they started, they might as well go the whole way with it, but it is what it is,” Velazquez said.

Louisiana schools, however, are still operating under detailed safety rules. These include mandatory mask-wearing for grades 3 and up, social distancing of 6 feet and limits on visitors on campus. That includes parents.

“A lot of our elementary parents, they want to walk their kids to class (on the first day), but we can’t do that with the social distancing and all,” explained Principal Edwards.

Katie McKay Simpson’s children Eva, 8 and Jack, 6, are new to Wildwood this year.

“They’re excited to be back in person, to meet some new friends,” Simpson said. “They are a little nervous too, not quite knowing what to expect.”

Simpson said virtual education this past month was a hard adjustment for her kids, but she said Wildwood staff have been great. She also appreciates the school’s attention to safety.

“We’re grateful that Wildwood has made all the protocols to keep them safe,” she said.

That’s no accident. Principal Edwards himself got sick this spring from COVID-19.

“It’s given me a perspective on all sides of the issue and really made me think about coming back in terms of safety and the data, having gone through the experience I have,” he said.

The anxiety of many parents still was evident in other ways. The normally full school buses arrived at Wildwood nearly empty Monday. Also about half of the school's 500 students have elected to continue learning strictly online for now at least.

Edwards supported the decision in late July to delay the start of in-person instruction in East Baton Rouge Parish schools, even appearing at a virtual press conference with new Superintendent Leslie Brown. But he said the situation since has much improved.

“The decision to delay was the right decision at the time,” he said, “and I think the decision to come back now is the right decision.”


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.