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The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all residents of Calaveras County this past year, from business owners to employees and from seniors to students.

Staff and students at Vallecito Union School District (VUSD) recently released a professionally published anthology detailing their experiences during an exceptionally challenging year.

The book, titled “The Road Back: Memories of Covid Left Behind,” contains the thoughts, poems, artwork and essays of more than 115 students at Albert Michelson Elementary School, Hazel Fischer Elementary School, Avery Middle School and Vallecito Home School Academy on the pandemic, distance learning and the return to in-person instruction.

VUSD Assistant Superintendent Louise Simson said that the idea for the book came about during a morning conversation she had with veteran teacher Laura Oliver.

“We were just talking about all that the kids and staff had been through this year, and we just thought it would be amazing to capture the thoughts in a book. This is a moment in time and unique in history, and these kids went through a lot,” she said. “We are seeing printed references in the media to the 1918 Spanish flu. This little collection of essays might provide a historical perspective for the next 100-year pandemic.”

Many teachers across the district assigned a writing prompt, and students were required to return a permission slip in order to be featured in the book. Site secretary Judy Bergantz and para-educator Deb Rocco helped verify the permission slips and assisted Simson in compiling the text and photos.

Several staff members contributed their accounts and viewpoints as well. The student contributions are presented exactly as they were written.

“We did not edit the student work,” Simson said. “You will find typos and spelling errors in this collection because this is the kids’ writing. It’s their memories, their opinions, their truth. We just provided a venue for their moment in time to be memorialized.”

The district recently received a press copy of the book, with full delivery of 400 copies expected in the coming weeks. All students featured in the book are guaranteed free copies. Simson said that the kids were thrilled to see their work in print. 

“How cool to say you were a published author in kindergarten,” she said.

The book includes a short narrative by fourth-grader Glen Hall, as well as a picture of him singing “Red River Valley” in cowboy attire and seated by a fire as part of Michelson Elementary’s virtual talent show during distance learning last spring. He said that hoped the book would shed light on the student experience during the pandemic.

“I feel more outgoing and hope that more people will understand kids and the problems they might have had,” Hall said. “I am very excited about it!”

Simson said that one of her favorite poems in the book is “I Want The Old World Back” by Mathew Rosario, a student at Avery Middle School.

“There was a lot of wisdom in those two stanzas summed up perfectly by a sixth grader,” Simson said.

The cover of the book features a school bus passing under a canopy of colorful fall leaves.

“We chose that as the cover, as it is evocative of the journey. We are really proud of the community and staff coming together to help us craft a compromise to get back to school for all students, all day back in October 2020,” Simson said. “We were one of the few school systems in the nation open every day for all kids this year. Getting open was really, really hard. People had to put aside points of view and work on a compromise for kids. It wasn’t perfect and no one got everything they wanted, but it worked.”

The publication of the book was funded with grant money from the Wintercreek Foundation.

“We are grateful for Wintercreek’s donation to fund this creative art endeavor,” Simson said. “It is going to be a happy memory for these kids to have been a part of a published book project after such a hard year of adversity and missing special things in their lives.”

VUSD Superintendent Jim Frost said that the district always works hard to offer options for families across its three-site, 600-student district. During the pandemic, this has included offering a homeschool program and a digital K-12 platform as an alternative to in-person instruction.

“We realize that not all families could return to school, and staff created a range of options for families to meet the students’ learning needs,” he said. ‘The Road Back’ is a testament to the resiliency of students and families during these difficult times.”

Among the images included in the book are photos of students at their homes during distance learning, some learning outside on their decks.

“I think the past year is one that we are all ready to forget, but I will forever be proud and grateful to our staff, students and community for working together to get us open,” Simson said. “I hope this book will make the kids and staff throughout the district proud of their efforts and all that they have accomplished in this very hard year.”

“The Road Back: Memories of Covid Left Behind,” is available for free while supplies last. To receive a copy of the book, email Simson at lsimson@vsd.k12.ca.us.



Noah Berner has lived in Calaveras County most of his life, and graduated from University of California, Santa Cruz with a degree in history.

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