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Several Gustine High students underscored their desire to return to the classroom by gathering near campus to take part in their distance learning sessions Thursday and Friday.

GUSTINE - The Gustine Unified School District is moving forward with plans to resume classroom instruction Monday, March 1.

A group of Gustine High students sent a clear message last week that they were more than ready to return to campus.

The students braved the morning chill to set up chairs and settle in with their laptops near the GHS campus entrance to show their desire to get back to the classroom. Socially distanced and wearing masks, the students logged on to their remote classes across the street from the campus.

The demonstration started Thursday, Feb. 18, which at one point was the scheduled date for classes to resume. When the district paused its in-person instruction prior to the holidays due to rising COVID-19 case numbers, mid-January was the target date for returning to the classroom.

That uncertainty, and constant changes surrounding the pandemic, have heightened the frustration with what has already been a difficult year, students shared.

Lalanie Brace, one of several seniors participating in the demonstration, said that while she understands the decisions behind the delays the setbacks were nonetheless disheartening.

“The dates give us hope; then they push it back,” Brace commented.

She emphasized, though, that students are respectful of the school officials and the difficult decisions they face.

“We are supporting them. They are doing everything they can,” Brace stated. “We are just saying that we want to get back to the classroom.”

Her senior year has been beyond difficult, she reflected.

“I have honestly cried,” Brace said. “We talk about the things that we will miss in our senior year.”

Brace said she most misses the campus interaction with fellow students and staff, and still hopes to be able to enjoy at least some traditional senior year activities.

Distance learning, she noted, “is a totally different perspective” from being in the classroom and many students are struggling.

Fellow senior Clayton Alamo summed up what he has most missed in a single word.

“Everything,” he told Mattos Newspapers.

“Going from two years ago and seeing all the fun things seniors were able to do to now having nothing” has been difficult, Alamo explained. “We went from looking forward to a prom to now seeing if we will even have the chance to have senior activities or a normal graduation.”

He, too, said distance learning has been a challenge.

Alamo said not being able to talk in person to his teachers when he has a question or needs assistance has been among the drawbacks of distance learning.

“Sometimes email just doesn’t do it,” he remarked.

Tianah Vitorino said she has anticipated her senior year since arriving on campus as a freshman.

“I have always looked up to seniors,” she shared. “I couldn’t wait to be (a senior). Now I am....and I don’t feel like I am. I don’t get to have the senior year that they all got. I want to be at school, having the experience that everybody else got to have. I want to be a senior.”

The hardship is not limited to seniors, Vitorino stressed. Freshman year, for example, brings its own experiences that the current frosh class will largely miss.

“They don’t get to have that experience,” she said. “They are sitting at home on line, not even knowing the seniors and the upper classmen.”

Vitorino said students on hand to make their statement supporting a return to school have received support from passing motorists, parents and school staff.

“We have gotten so much love,” she said Thursday. “We didn’t expect that.”

Dr. Bryan Ballenger, district superintendent, was among those stopping by to visit with the students Thursday.

He confirmed to Mattos Newspapers that March 1 remains the starting date for classroom instruction.

Ballenger said that the actions of the students “gives them a voice in the matter. The big thing is that they want to be back in school. We want them back, but we want them to be safe.”

He acknowledged strong feelings on both sides of the school reopening debate. Ballenger emphasized that the district is respectful of  all viewpoints and striving to serve those who do not yet feel comfortable returning to the classroom as well as those coming back to campus.

“We are offering an in-person option for those who feel it is safe to return and a distance learning option for those who do not choose (to send their children back to the classroom),” Ballenger commented.

About 55 percent of the district’s students are expected to return to the classroom, Ballenger said, while the remainder will remain on distance learning.

A variety of safety protocols, including mask requirements, daily health screenings and temperature checks, and social distancing will be implemented when schools reopen to students.