Last month, stepping onto campus for the first time as a Half Moon Bay High School freshman, Zoe McAnerney felt different. She was finally able to meet all of her teachers and to get to know her peers as more than just squares on a screen.

The most interesting of her classes, biology, which she attends in person half the time and remotely the other half as part of the high school’s hybrid schedule, is a challenge. But it’s a rewarding one.

“It’s so much better than all online,” McAnerney said. “It feels like a small class.”

Half Moon Bay High School Principal John Nazar said about half of the high school’s students are now back on campus for in-person learning. The campus has phased its reopening, which began April 12 for 11th and 12th grade students, followed by ninth- and 10th-graders the next week. He said the numbers of returning students match or are higher than nearby high schools, which are all seeing around half of their students choosing to remain fully remote this spring. Those who come to campus, like McAnerney, are attending classes in person two days a week, and virtually for two days, with Wednesdays set aside for asynchronous, self-led work.

With many Cougars now back, Nazar said he feels the positive energy he loves most about the school.

“The transition has been really invigorating,” Nazar said. “... This has just been a long, lonely time without the students, without that energy. It didn't feel like what our community is about.”

Students are choosing to remain remote for different reasons, Nazar said. Some may be responsible for younger siblings also now on hybrid or remote schedules, or may even have found that remote learning was working for them. Others may have family members at higher risk of severe sickness from COVID-19.

Those who are back on campus have been diligent about the safety protocols, according to Nazar. He said he hasn’t heard of a single issue of students failing to comply with social distancing, mask wearing or following crowd control arrows on campus or at athletic events. He also said no COVID-19 cases connected to on-campus learning have been reported so far.

This year, Nazar said, more students are struggling to pass their classes, so the high school will be offering more summer recovery classes than usual and will even add sections to next year’s schedule to help them make up credits. He said most seniors are on track to graduate, but nearly a year of remote learning didn’t work as well for many younger students.

“Our biggest concern is, quite honestly, our freshmen,” Nazar said. “I suspect that’s because they haven't built as much connection and only now are coming onto campus.”

Some older students now back on campus have gotten their COVID-19 vaccines. The Pfizer shot has been available to those 16 and older, and just this week, was approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration for kids as young as 12 years old. Nazar said many students who also work at local grocery stores, restaurants or elsewhere in the service industry had early access to shots, making them feel safer on campus.

For McAnerney, getting back into the classroom, even for just half the day twice a week, means having a routine again. She’s involved in water polo and swimming on campus, and finally gets to enjoy off-campus lunches, something she looked forward to in middle school.

As for seniors, they have an in-person graduation to look forward to, now that local restrictions have begun to ease. Nazar said the school is submitting a plan to the county for a June 3 outdoor graduation ceremony on the campus football field to give their hardworking graduates a proper celebration and send-off.

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