By Clara Beard, Special to the Independent
Excitement was in the air as El Morro Elementary School students, teachers and staff rolled up for their first day of the school year on Monday. As parents took pictures and waved goodbye, Laguna Beach Unified Supt. Jason Viloria and new El Morro principal Julie Hatchel were there, along with several teachers, to welcome them into class.
The atmosphere was upbeat and enthusiastic after two and a half years of COVID-19 uncertainty and heartbreaking tragedy from the sudden death of the school’s beloved principal, Chris Duddy, in May.
“I felt confident and respectful about coming in after Mr. Duddy,” Hatchel said after the first day of school wrapped. “I think the great thing is that I was able to work with him so closely. I really got to know his style, so it made for a smooth transition. It’s an extraordinary staff. I’m able to work with a team where there are solid systems in place, so it was a smooth transition.”
Before taking the helm at El Morro, Hatchel was the principal of Top of the World Elementary School and worked closely with Duddy for two years. The district hired Hatchel in April to step in after Duddy planned to retire June 30.
Duddy’s legacy at El Morro Elementary can be felt in the hallways of the school, and Hatchel says she hopes to continue down that path. Duddy served Laguna Beach schools for 24 years, 17 of which were at El Morro. Hatchel vows to live up to the high bar set by Duddy—including his ability to remember every student’s name.
“Mr. Duddy and I did get to talk a little bit before his unfortunate passing,” Hatchel said. “But because we worked together so closely, we were able to anticipate things and understand the legacy that he left in the importance of that. I want to be respectful that I bring the best of all that Mr. Duddy was and continue to give in the spirit to El Morro and build forward from there.”
Not only did the school deal with the crushing loss of its principal, COVID-19 caused mayhem with the staff’s planning and general school operations. The international logistics backlog has meant longer wait times for furniture and other essential school supplies, Hatchel said.
“The last few years have been extremely unpredictable,” Hatchel said. “That’s been hard on the kids, our community and our staff too because it was full of unforeseen circumstances we had to navigate. It’s been a wonderful opportunity this year to, I don’t want to say, get back to normal because we have a new normal, but to be able to do better planning and anticipating of how we’re going to move forward into the school year.”
Families can look forward to the fun expected from El Morro’s school assemblies and annual Boo Blast around Halloween. Parents will also be invited back to volunteer on campus this year after a pandemic hiatus, Hatchel said.
The joy was felt among the parents as well. Emily Rolfing and her husband Matt were both present at the school entrance to see off their twins, who attend Third-grade teacher Jamie Jameson’s class. Rolfing was a former student of Duffy’s and said the transition to summer was tough after the news.
“Dr. Hatchel is so wonderful, and the teachers on campus, everyone on campus is great,” Rolfing said. “The kids have so much to look forward to every day. Last night, my kids said they couldn’t wait to return to school. There’s a little bit of grieving, but mainly, they can’t wait to be back on campus, see their teacher and see the new classrooms. They’re also so excited to get back on the playground.”
“The anticipation is high for a new normal school year,” Rolfing continued. We have 100 percent no masks this year. They weren’t necessarily last year, but it’s really cool. I was talking to one of the fourth-grade teachers, and she said, ‘I can’t wait to have the kids walk in the door. The first day of school, with no masks and see their beautiful smiles.’”
A preliminary total of 2,478 students were enrolled in the Laguna Beach Unified School District for the 2022-23 academic year, Viloria wrote in an email Wednesday. The incoming Kindergarten class includes 109 students while the current 12th-grade class has about 277 students. District officials point out this reflects the state’s declining birthrate and the rising cost of living in Laguna Beach.
School safety has been an intense focus of Laguna Beach school officials since the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Flor. Laguna Beach police have two school resource officers patrolling and engaged on all four school sites. Administrators and teachers across the district are constantly learning how to improve security practices and be more intentional about caring for students’ behavioral health.
The May shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, reinforced the need for these protective measures, Hatchel said.
“It’s something we always think about and we can’t be passive about it. We have to constantly think about what is going on around us and how do we best protect our kids, our staff from the physical and the social-emotional threats that might come into our schools,” Hatchel said.
Daniel Langhorne contributed reporting to this story.