Several backpacks hung from hooks or sat bunched on the floor of a classroom at San Benito Elementary on Tuesday morning as 22 sixth graders focused on a sheaf of papers with a story about a misbehaving robot.
“What is the theme of the story?” asked teacher Denise Moore, and eight pairs of hands rose into the air.
Moore walked around the classroom as she talked and answered questions, as much at ease as if she were leading a lesson in her regular room.
But she’s actually a San Gabriel Elementary teacher, one of about 60 staff members, including teachers, support staff and administrators, who have been displaced since the Atascadero Unified School District closed the campus on Sept. 11 after threatening letters and a suspicious object were discovered before classes started.
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Class was canceled that day and since Sept. 14 the school’s 570 students have studied at three campuses in Atascadero and Santa Margarita, as authorities continue to investigate the incident.No new updates have been released by Atascadero police this week as they continue to wait for the FBI to complete testing of a liquid found inside the suspicious object. Law enforcement officials said the liquid initially tested positive for a dangerous chemical substance; the FBI is testing it in Quantico, Va.
Police have not identified any suspects in the case.
District officials are also awaiting results from an environmental-monitoring service they hired to examine the interior and exterior of the school. Until those results are complete, students will continue to attend class at one of the other school sites.
Counseling has been available for students and staff and will be in place once they return to campus, Superintendent Tom Butler said.
A few San Gabriel teachers interviewed Tuesday at San Benito said they picked up lessons on Sept. 14 right where they left off the previous Thursday, Sept. 10 — trying to establish a routine for the students while teaching out of music rooms, libraries and resource centers at other campuses.
“We had our boxes ready to go Monday morning,” said sixth-grade teacher Heidi Cooper, who photocopied math lessons for her fellow sixth grade teachers over that weekend at Atascadero High School, where her husband works. “Our goal is to make it as normal as possible.”
She and Moore said fewer students attended the first day, but attendance rose and now is hovering near normal levels. A few of their students are out sick, they said, as a cold has been making the rounds.
When San Gabriel teachers arrived at San Benito Elementary on Sept. 14, green baskets filled with crayons, scissors and pencils were waiting for them. Cooper said she bought some supplies but hasn’t had to use them.
“The librarian came to every teacher and asked what books we needed from the library,” Moore added. “That was so helpful. Staff thought about something before we even did.”
San Benito fifth-grade teacher Jean Sutton said the students have gotten along well, and the temporary move has given teachers from different schools a chance to connect.
San Gabriel Principal Shauna Ames said the situation has been similar at the other school sites hosting students — Santa Margarita Elementary and Santa Rosa Academic Academy.
“When I emailed my staff I was so impressed by the response,” San Benito Principal Patty Newman said. “It was ‘what can we do?’”
Despite the warm welcome, the San Gabriel teachers look forward to returning to their classrooms — though when that will happen is still uncertain.
“I just want my stuff,” Moore said. “It’s like when you’re traveling and you get to your destination and they lose your luggage and give you temporary items but you want your own stuff — you want to go home.”