“They were learning. We were lucky”
Going to school under any circumstances has its excitements and anxieties for children of all ages. After a year and a half at home with remote learning, the opportunity to see friends, leave home and meet their teachers has given students across the Santa Clarita Valley a chance at happiness following a grim period of time.
Take Miriam Brienik and her two second graders at Valencia Valley Elementary School. Last year in October, as COVID-19 cases were on the rise nationwide, the family of four moved to Valencia from Los Angeles.
“We kept them online with their teacher with [the Los Angeles Unified School District], through the end of the year because it was just a lot of change for very little people,” Brienik said about her children. “We lived in L.A. and they had been going to school there for two and a half years. We shut down – six months later we moved areas, moved school districts and we just felt like ‘You know what? Everything’s online right now anyways, let’s just keep it that way.’ And then when SCV went back [to in-person learning], we weren’t sure.”
Brienik said that while life under lockdown conditions were not ideal, it was the best of both possible worlds for her and her husband Sal. For her children’s physical and mental health, Brienik and Sal continued remote learning, in which she noted how their children loved their instructor, were “happy enough with their teacher. They were learning. We were lucky.” Both parents worked from home and went back and forth to help out on school work when needed.
In the months that followed, they walked around the campus to get an idea where they’d be going once in-person learning came back. As vaccinations indicated a sign of good news going into summer, the season delivered the next stage of the pandemic that caused anxiety for the Brieniks and millions of other Americans.
“It got scary around the end of July [into] August and Delta was starting to hit,” she said. “You read articles about how our hospitals are getting filled with children. It was a low percentage, but you have to take that into consideration overall. The low percentage is not a ‘no percentage’ and we all love our kids, right? We all want to protect them.”
“I trust the school districts, I trust the science”
Similarly, Kelly Franti’s sons adjusted well to remote learning. Now a junior and freshman at Saugus High School, responsibilities in life have caught up with them since the pandemic began. While her younger son has new commitments as part of the Associated Student Body, her older son has suddenly been met the familiar later stages of teen life.
“I think that right now is harder, actually,” Franti said. “It’s interesting, my older son is 16 now so during all this he would have gotten his learner’s permit and he would have started driving. He missed half of his freshman year and most of his sophomore year, and now all of a sudden he’s an upper classman. Obvious responsibilities that, as a parent, I’m expecting him to want to learn how to drive, to start socializing and being out with his friends more. He’s just been really hesitant about that. I think it was just so sudden going from freshman year to junior year – it’s such a stunning difference.”
For Brienik’s children, learning from home and achieving some grasp of the pandemic has been an interesting lesson for them to learn, she said. At a young age, structure matters until suddenly “you have school done day and you just literally never come back,” she added. She’s dreamt of taking them back to the old campus in L.A. to reminisce but knows that may not be possible.
Both Brienik and Franti said they follow the science and are grateful for how safe their children have been going back to school. Each family has remained vigilant about going out in public around others without masks. Franti said her sons, who are both vaccinated, will speak up in case someone in class is maskless.
“I think a lot of arguments against mask-wearing and testing and all that – it’s really our issues that we put on kids. I was nervous about telling them to wear a mask in the beginning. Now my kids [will remind me and ]are like, ‘Mommy, your mask!'” Brienik laughed. “They are fine… it’s kind of normal and it’s going to be abnormal when the masks go away. The human race is pretty amazing in that way. We adapt.”
Working with school districts and anti-mask/vaccine parents has also made going back to school contentious. The Newhall School District opted to not ask the California Department of Public Health about giving themselves discretion over the statewide mask mandate after enough parents came forward against the action. Brienik said she would contact Superintendent Jeff Pelzel to voice her concerns over the district’s lack of testing for COVID-19 and wish for more separation among students to prevent a potential outbreak. She noted that while she alone may not change anything, she could be one voice of hundreds of parents with the same concern. As she still gets emails from LAUSD, she’s reminded of its weekly testing of teachers and staff.
“Separating them is hard, testing them is hard and expensive,” Brienik said. “Making them wear a cloth mask over their faces is super easy.”
Franti said Saugus’ principal, Genevieve Peterson Henry, is doing her best handling students’ return to school and following district safety guidelines and, by extension, guidelines from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
“I trust the school districts, I trust science, I trust the medical professionals,” said Franti. “I hope the school boards will continue to represent the interests and wishes of the majority, and not cave in to the pressure of the loud minority. They’re louder but there’s more people that agree with the science and are willing to do what’s being asked of the nation for the good of everyone.”
However, the divisions among parents at school board meetings and across social media have continued the fight over keeping children safe while COVID-19 remains a very real threat. Franti said for the parents who want to scream all they want, they’re “talking to the wrong people.”
“It’s not the school board that’s making this decision, it’s the county, it’s the city, it’s the federal government…” she said. “If I don’t see [school board members following guidance by health experts], then I’ll be at the school board meetings but I won’t be screaming. I trust the people who I’ve put in charge to represent me, and that they will represent me.”
“Anything can happen later”
Between an eager return to school and now-regular announcements by the Food and Drug Administration about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines in children, both families respectively remain contented with following safety guidelines well into 2022. As Brienik put it, science will answer the question: “Science is going to science.”
With a wide presence on social media, particularly Facebook, Franti said she’s talked with parents about the state of the pandemic, mask and vaccine mandates and children’s safety. Those discussions have been smart and intelligent, she said, coming from people who are decent, hopeful and “want to do good and help each other.”
“Even if people disagree it’s still not such a hard, absolute line in the sand and ‘You’re wrong!'” she said. “It’s, ‘Did you ever think about it from this way?'”
Both mothers said they see the current “Covid normal” continue well into next year as long as people continue getting vaccinated and resisting so. Brienik pointed out that COVID-19 vaccines will “go along with every other vaccine children are required to have.” She faults comparisons to the flu early on in the pandemic for contributing to coronavirus becoming endemic, given the similar unfounded denials of flu vaccines common before the pandemic.
“It’s just that this is happening now in a really weird time, and so people don’t look at this like they look at [measles, mumps and rubella], like they look at polio, even though it’s the same journey we went on.”
Before concluding her interview with The Proclaimer, Brienik made another point about the after-effects of COVID-19 among survivors by drawing a parallel to her husband Sal. While stories of long haul Covid have become common, studies have slowly emerged revealing more health symptoms caused by infection, however it’s unknown what is in store for survivors in the distant future.
Brienik and Sal lived and worked in New York City during the Sept. 11 attacks. Residing in Brooklyn Heights, Sal went across Manhattan Bridge to get home but was told when he could return to work taking the train. The subway was underneath Ground Zero, and the rubble of the World Trade Center left a “horrid” smell for workers making their stop, Brienik said. By 2008, Sal was diagnosed with Hogkin’s lymphoma.
“He’s totally fine now, but you don’t know,” Brienik said. “And I live with that [uncertainty]. Anything can happen later.”
This is Part 3 of a series focused on the “new normal” of schools in the Santa Clarita Valley and how districts, teachers and parents are acclimating to in-person learning despite the ongoing pandemic.
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