Teens headed to West County High School in Sebastopol this week are in for another year in the school of life, marking two years since student were able to have a traditional first day of school.

The same goes for Laguna High School students, reestablishing on the former El Molino High School campus in Forestville.

The high schoolers have pushed through long periods of isolation as the coronavirus continues to spread and fire season returns.

Superintendent Toni Beal said the school district has been working nonstop to merge Analy and El Molino high schools into the West County High School, “Thanks to the hard work of our custodial, maintenance, operations and technology teams, and the collaboration between teaching and administrative staff from both sites, we are ready for students tomorrow morning,” over email Wednesday, Aug. 11.

According to Beal, 1,611 youth are currently enrolled at West County High School, and the district is excited for Aug. 12 to welcome them.

This August marks the debut of the education hub itself, rising from the ashes of the consolidation of Analy and El Molino high schools, schools that have been rivals for decades. The school at Analy High School’s former site is operating under West County High School as a bridge name until the renaming process concludes.

Early school identification cards were mistakenly printed with an incorrect spelling of the school name, caught on the first day of student orientations. “This mistake was quickly corrected and students who received ID cards with the misspelled school name will receive updated cards during their first period class tomorrow,” Beal said.

Beal has said a student committee will restart the process when school begins, to offer a recommendation the West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD)’s board of trustees can consider on whether to rename and if so, what the new name, mascot and colors shall be.

Meanwhile, Laguna High is beginning the year with “new programs, new staff and access to new facilities” at the former El Molino site. “Laguna staff have been working throughout the summer to move into classrooms and prepare for students arriving tomorrow,” the superintendent said.

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Principal Shauna Ferdinandson will lead the newly formed West County High School, welcoming seniors for orientation Friday, Aug. 6, 2021 in Sebastopol.

Students and parents looking forward to connection

Almost a week of school orientations for each grade ended Friday, Aug. 6 with streams of seniors walking across campus, turning in paperwork and sitting on the bleachers for a back-to-school rally, often close together.

A pair of sophomore cheerleaders shared their thoughts returning to a more traditional school experience. Both attended Analy for their first year, mostly online, of course.

“I feel like it’s going to be different but better,” said Desirée McKenzie. Wilder Larrain pitched in, “I mean, especially being isolated from all your friends and teachers, especially, it was a hard time. I know, academically-”

“And socially,” McKenzie added.

“And yeah, mentally and physically, there were some struggles. But I think once this year starts to build up and continue through, we’ll have an easier time, I would say, focusing but also just reconnecting and reuniting with people new and old,” Larrain finished.

It’s not just seeing people students missed over the summer, it’s also “I haven’t seen you in a year and a half,” in some cases, McKenzie pointed out. “I’m looking forward to seeing all the people I haven’t seen in a long time. And then cheer, I’m definitely looking forward to cheerleading.”

“I think I’m mostly looking forward to seeing my teachers in person, and I know for a fact that when I came back last year in person, safely, and even only for a few days, my grades went up completely,” Larrain said.

She continued, “And I think a lot of people were affected, especially, by the pandemic, mentally because you couldn’t focus. You’d be isolated from all these people you care about and really, you wouldn’t know if they would survive this.”

McKenzie voiced her approval of the funding to offer students more sports options now that Analy and El Molino have merged.

“It’s cool we have a new school,” she said.

That Friday, registration volunteer Roger Benz praised school staff for doing the best they can to keep students safe and prepare for what challenges may lie ahead.

He said he feels a little anxious sending his son back for his senior year, but more confident knowing his son is vaccinated. A positive impact of the isolation is that his son is more outgoing and eager to connect than before the pandemic, Benz said.  

“He’s been home for about a year and a half now, and with all the changes with the Delta variant coming and whatnot, it’s a little nerve-wracking, but at the same time, I think there’s so much benefit to having him out and interacting with other people that the small risk that he does face. I think it’s worth it,” he said.

COVID-19 regulations will be in place when school starts, such as keeping masks on indoors and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent directive that teachers and staff must get vaccinated or get tested for the virus weekly. More information on new COVID-19-related rules and guidance for schools is available here, from the Sonoma County Office of Education and some members of the county’s health department.

Beal spoke to the history made at this moment.

 “We all chose education as our careers because we love working with students. Being on Zoom all last year did not allow for the personal connections that mean so much to us as teachers and human beings,” she said. “We are eager to see our students, to connect, and to teach and learn together.”

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West County High students roll their peers by the ankles across the gym floor on wheeled planks of wood to capture balls with laundry baskets in a game during senior orientation on Aug. 6, 2021 in Sebastopol.

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