'It felt comfortable': students return to a more-normal routine

·4 min read

Aug. 11—Shelby Lopez-Sanders was one of the first students to show up for school Wednesday.

Faced with new surroundings at Garfield STEM Magnet and Community School, the 11-year-old had caught a case of first-day jitters. She showed up to school 40 minutes early.

"I'm excited, but I'm a little scared because I've never been here," the new sixth grader told the Journal. "I used to get picked on a lot."

As the first bell of the year drew closer, Lopez-Sanders' mother, Rachel Lopez, walked her daughter up to the school's front doors, clinging to every moment before turning her daughter loose.

Finally, she let her go, but not without a kiss and a bendición — sending her off with a blessing. "She's my one and only," an emotional Lopez said as she walked back to her vehicle.

Lopez-Sanders was one of some 330 Garfield students — and tens of thousands across Albuquerque Public Schools — who kicked off the school year Wednesday morning, marking a triumphant return to more familiar routines after the district did away with mask mandates and other pandemic protocols ahead of the new year.

First days are "always kind of crazed," social studies teacher Kalyn Lopez said. Still, the morning seemed to go off with few hitches — just a straggling school bus or two.

Once students made it through the front doors or off their yellow buses, they mingled in the courtyard, catching up with friends and meeting new classmates. For the first time in a long time, they could do so freely.

"You saw them really coming together and being glad to see each other," said Superintendent Scott Elder, who helped welcome students back. "It felt comfortable."

At the blow of a whistle, middle-schoolers flooded into Garfield's brick-and-tile halls, filling them with a roar of excited chatter. The bell rang, and school was back in session.

While schools are enjoying a more-normal start to the year, Elder said it's inevitable that COVID-19 outbreaks may force some to return to enhanced pandemic protocols at some point. Still, he was crossing his fingers that it wouldn't happen everywhere.

And while students seemed happy to leave their mask-wearing days behind them — very few chose to wear them — some, like 11-year-old Saviono Lucero, didn't seem to see what all of the fuss was about.

"Meh," the sixth grader said when asked if he was excited to be free of face coverings.

Be that as it may, Lopez, the social studies teacher, said her top priority is to help students feel safe and comfortable in class — whether they choose to wear masks or not.

"I like to make sure that they get the love and care that they need before they get the content," the eight-year veteran of the middle school said.

Seniors look ahead

Valley High School, home to over 1,100 students this year, also bustled back to life with the new school year.

Many students already seemed to know where to go, and the school's hallways looked like busy roadway intersections as high-schoolers forged paths through passing periods, occasionally pausing to fist-bump their friends.

Some though, like 15-year-old Laura Velarde, needed a little assistance. Principal Anthony Griego came to the rescue and helped her get to where she needed to be.

For several of the school's 156 seniors, starting the new year brought excitement, some relief and very little nostalgia as they faced closing out one chapter and venturing into life beyond high school.

"This year, I'm looking forward to applying to schools and (seeing) how I can better my future," Andres Jaquez, 17, said. "I'm just excited to be back with my friends and all my new teachers."

Even though the school year just started, some 12th graders already seemed ready to settle into senioritis, but even more were dreaming up big plans for their futures.

Esmeralda Esparza, who said that last year she finished work on a bilingual seal for her diploma, said she's already gotten into three schools but hopes to get acceptance letters from Yale or Harvard universities.

"I'm nervous," the 17-year-old said. "I don't know if I'll get accepted to those schools ... I'm just getting everything organized so I can prepare for a university."