ELK GROVE (CBS13) — Students at Elk Grove Unified headed back to class Thursday morning.

The district was one of the first in the state to close for in-person learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, on Thursday, they kicked off a brand new school year with students and teachers back full-time at 18 of its campuses.

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We are used to kind of being the guinea pigs,” said Principal Brian MacNeill at Irene B. West Elementary. “For me I look at is as a bonus, we get to see the kids sooner.”

The return is especially exciting for many students, including Amiyah – who is headed off to first grade.

“I’m glad to be back because I want to learn so much,” she said.

At Elk Grove schools, social distancing is no longer required, but all students will be required to wear masks indoors. Staff members who share an indoor space with students must mask up as well.

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Visitors and volunteers will not be allowed in classrooms, and rapid COVID-19 testing will be available on-site at schools.

MacNeill said the biggest challenges facing schools this year include addressing learning loss and social/emotional skills.

“We survived the Zoom era and we’re hoping to never go back,” he said. “Teachers are doing a lot of get to know you activities – way more than we normally do.”

Elk Grove’s return comes in the same week that California public health leaders backtracked on strict measures barring maskless K-12 students from campuses. On Tuesday, the California Department of Public Health announced that they would be leaving mask enforcement up to local districts. EGUSD said those who don’t want to wear a mask can enroll in the district’s virtual academy.

The CDC announced last week that it was prioritizing in-person learning this school year.

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California public health leaders have said their masking guidelines are to ensure that all students are treated fairly, especially with the COVID-19 vaccine only being approved for people over the age of 12.

Heather Janssen