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Back to school in person: Smyrna District’s hybrid lessons start for grades K-3

Ben Mace
Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times
Students and teachers comply with social-distancing precautions at North Smyrna Elementary.

With a variety of safety precautions in place, the first Smyrna School District students returned to in-person classes Oct. 5 after schools were closed because of the coronavirus in March.

“Virtual instruction” online started for all students Sept. 8. So far, only kindergarten to third graders are allowed in the buildings, but Superintendent Patrik Williams said the early reviews are positive.

“The social and emotional payoff has been the best part of our hybrid return. This week has been uplifting for students and staff alike,” Williams said Oct. 9. “Seeing students walk up to the school, eyes crinkling from their smiles behind masks and excitedly following our staff inside has made everyone’s week.  Students are comfortable following the new safety protocols, and they are more than ready to see their teachers and friends.”

Students in kindergarten to third grade whose parents or guardians chose the hybrid learning plan have been divided into two groups.  One group goes to school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays and then has online instruction Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. The other group has online instruction Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays and then goes to school in person on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesday is a cleaning and sanitizing day with no students in the schools.

Last week, Williams said, “We’ve been back just a few days, and all of our procedures are working well. Eventually, we will look at ways to incorporate some daily transitions from one class to another, but for now, students receive their instruction in one classroom to minimize contact points. Balancing the virtual with the in-person routines for all students will consistently be the challenge, but our teachers are up to it.”

Safety precautions

In an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, everyone in the schools is required to wear a mask, and hand washing and/or sanitizing multiple times daily is the norm, Williams said.

In classrooms, desks are six feet apart, with a maximum of about 12 students in each classroom, sometimes more as space allows.

In hallways, yellow tape has been placed in the middle as a divider and everyone is required to walk along the right side of the hall.

“We also have six-foot decals everywhere, and students actually use these as ‘line-up’ spots,” said Williams.

H said surfaces throughout the school are being sanitized multiple times each day.

On buses, students are spaced out with a maximum of one student per seat, alternating window and aisle positions. Buses are sanitized after every run.

‘Heartbeat of our school’

At North Smyrna Elementary, Principal Dr. Amber Augustus said, “It feels as though the heartbeat of our school has returned” now that students are in class in person.

“Their smiles, laughter and happy energy have been missed,” she said. “The joy of being back is seen on the faces of our students and staff. Students have said how much they have missed school, being with their teachers, and seeing their friends. Our teachers are thrilled.”

She said the staff and students have modified their routines and procedures to promote health and safety, and it has been working well.

“Our students have adjusted quickly to these new expectations such as wearing a mask while in the building and maintaining a distance from others throughout the day,” Augustus said.

As for challenges, she said, “One of the hardest parts of returning is knowing our students can’t see from our smiles that we are overjoyed they are back. Instead, we have air hugged, air high fived, and created new gestures for happy greetings. Our mission is to provide the best education possible and celebrate every child for who they are and what they bring to our school but from a safe distance.”

She said the preparations the district and school staff have made are working well, but they realize changes may be part of the process.

“As a district, we planned extensively in the months prior to our hybrid reopening,” Augustus said. “In the days leading up to our first day in person, our staff practiced new procedures so that we would be ready when students returned. Since reopening, we have not found any changes to be necessary. We are continuously evaluating our procedures and are prepared to make adjustments should the need arise.”

She said the students’ families have been “incredibly supportive” as classes started virtually and have transitioned to hybrid instruction.

“Parents have reached out to express their gratitude for teachers’ dedication and hard work during this time,” Augustus said. “Our families themselves have worked hard to learn new technology. Our teachers, front office staff, and administrators have supported families by answering questions and demonstrating how to use the new programs during virtual instruction.”

‘Missed the kids terribly’

At Clayton Elementary, Principal Heather Moyer said the hybrid schedule has been working “really well,” and so far no adjustments have been needed to the plan.

“It provides space for social distancing, but allows us to see the children,” she said. “​The best part of having in-person classes is seeing the kids. The students are the reason why we are in this profession and we have missed the kids terribly. Teachers are ecstatic to have students back in their classrooms.”

As far as challenges, Moyer listed balancing in-person instruction and virtual instruction.

“Teachers are working very hard to provide the best instruction possible for all students, whether they are teaching in school or virtually,” she said.

Moyer said parents have been pleased with the drop off and pick up procedures in the front of the school.

“Overall, we have received a lot of support from our amazing parents,” she said.

‘Pleased and enthusiastic’

Sunnyside Elementary Principal Patrick Grant said the students seemed “pleased and enthusiastic to be back.”

“We have been preparing for students to return to school since the spring. I feel that we were very prepared and ready to have them back,” he said. “Our planning and preparations have been successful and we really did not have to make any adjustments to our plans. We are looking forward to welcoming back our fourth grade students.”

He said families, understandably, have expressed worries about the COVID virus in general and with sending their children back into the building.

“It is a personal decision based on many factors. Many families have members that have pre-existing conditions or have illnesses that compromise their immune systems,” he said. “Some of those families have chosen to learn virtually.”

The highlight of in-person classes has been “seeing the students back at Sunnyside and having our staff and students in the building again,” said Grant. “It is nice to have a sense of normalcy and a ‘semi-normal’ school day with half of our students attending Monday and Tuesday and the other half attending Thursday and Friday in person, while learning virtually the days they are not physically in school.”

Through all of the changes for safety, a bright spot has emerged.

“We are also very lucky to have our outside learning classroom in the pavilion that was provided by our PTO [Parent-Teacher Organization]. The teachers can bring their class outside and have a nice, comfortable space to learn,” he said.

Like at many other schools, Grant said challenges have included getting familiar with new routines such as properly wearing a mask and social distancing during recess and lunch, but after a few days, “everyone is adjusting well.”

He and the staff have received positive feedback from parents “happy to be back to a somewhat ‘normal’ routine” for their children.

“Everyone has missed seeing one another and are happy to be back,” he said.

While in-person learning has been a new spark, Grant complimented the teachers for their dedication to online instruction as well.

“Our teachers have also received praise and positive feedback for their hard work and creativity during their virtual lessons,” he said. “Not only are they teaching their lessons, but are learning the technology platforms that go along with delivering those lessons. They work tirelessly to create lessons for their students on a daily basis.”

Next grade levels scheduled to return

The next students who will start in-person classes if they chose the hybrid plan are pre-kindergarten and fourth to sixth graders. They are scheduled to begin attending school the week of Oct. 26.

Seventh and eighth graders are scheduled to follow the week of Nov. 16 if they chose hybrid instruction.

Smyrna High School students, grades nine to 12, are scheduled to start in-person classes the week of Dec. 7 if they chose hybrid learning.

“Virtual” lessons online will continue on the days students aren’t attending in-person classes and for students who chose an all-virtual instruction plan.

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