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Albemarle teachers prepare for the return of students

At Stone Robinson on Tuesday, teachers and school staff were putting the final touches on classrooms to prepare for the return of students.

“It is definitely a first day for kids in November, so that’ll be interesting,” said Ashley Redmond, a special education teacher who works with students with autism. “We plan to stay very structured, very routine, teaching the kids about spacing and distancing.”

After allowing a handful of students into buildings for the first quarter, Wednesday marks the first time since mid-March county students will have anything close to a traditional classroom experience.

Students in preschool through third-grade will have two days of in-person classes a week. The other three days are designated at-home learning days when students will complete assignments independently. Some parents have asked for more information and structure on those asynchronous days, which they said were one of the hardest parts of virtual classes during the first day.

About half of the eligible 5,000 students opted for in-person classes, which are offered as part of the third stage of the division’s reopening plan.

Redmond said she’s excited to see her students in person and help them learn new routines such as wearing masks and staying apart from their classmates.

Her students will be in school four days a week, two days of which are with her and the other two are with their general education teacher. Only two of her students from the first quarter chose the all-online option.

Redmond has been working mostly from home and coming into school to help students in the buildings to help with mask-wearing. They’re also working with some students on potty training.

She knows that her students have regressed during the closure, but she’s confident they’ll be able to get skills and knowledge back.

“We’re going to work to really get that back,” Redmond said. “… When children typically regress, there’s a faster learning curve for them to get it back. I think we’ll be able to do that quickly, while also trying to learn the new curriculums they are also expected to learn.”

Students also will learn new tasks such as wiping down their desks and chairs at the end of the day.

To help students follow the precautions, Redmond and her team color-coded each student’s space and supplies. Color-coded tape separates each student’s area, which includes two desks and a stationary bike that she borrowed from the physical education department.

“If they’re just kind of struggling behaviorally, or they’re overwhelmed emotionally, I found that some physical activity and getting up and moving helps,” Redmond said.

Between the boxes, there’s a hallway-like gap for students to walk through when they need to leave their space.

Although she’s excited to have students back, Redmond said she’s also nervous. For months, teachers have raised numerous health and safety concerns about the start of in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the start of the school year, 13 employees and one contractor have tested positive for the virus.

Redmond said she’s concerned about exposing her children.

“But I’m also concerned about my students and their families and exposing them,” she said. “I have confidence that we’re going to be able to learn a new way of doing things and teach kids to wear masks and to stay spread apart. But there’s always that lingering concern.”

All of the division-supplied personal protective equipment sits on a shelf in the classroom. There’s a jug of hand sanitizer, KN95 masks, cloth facemasks, disposable masks, gowns, face shields and goggles.

She’s also ordered scrubs to wear during the school day.

“Mostly because we are doing some potty training and teaching kids how to wear masks,” she said. “ … it might be overcautious, but I’d rather be over cautious than under cautious.”

Some rooms at the school are storing extra classroom furniture since students will be seated in desks for most of the day.

Megan Weary, a first-grade teacher at Stone-Robinson, said she wants to provide students with the most normal experience possible.

“To not have them come into a situation that feels like it’s full of fear or anxiety, but a place where it’s going to be joyful and fun while also maintaining distance and health protocols,” she said.

Some of Weary’s students, who are broken up into two groups, are new to her class. Since not all students and teachers made the switch to in-person classes, some students had to change teachers.

So Weary and other teachers in a similar position will have to establish a new sense of classroom community and build trust among each other.

“Because I find that kids make the most academic and social growth when they trust each other and their teachers,” she said.

Weary said she’s confident in the division’s mitigation strategies to protect students and staff.

Virtual learning went better than Weary expected.

She said that last week’s goodbye to her virtual class was emotional.

“I felt like I really had gotten to know them, so the virtual learning experience was much more positive and impactful than I was expecting it to be,” she said.

She’s excited for students to return.

In her physical classroom, she strategically arranged the seating chart so she would be able to work with students in small groups without them having to leave their space.

Students have a box, outlined by tape, that defines their workspace. A cardboard box will store their lunch, backpack and other belongings.

“And then the boxes on the floor are so that I want kids to have to be able to have some freedom and not feel like they have to sit in their seat all day long,” she said.

She did keep some other seating options such as flexible stools that students will be able to have in their space for a week at a time.

Weary said she and the other first-grade teachers have talked, so they know where the students are academically and in their reading curriculum.

“So we will be able to just jump right back in,” she said. “Definitely, in some ways, it feels like starting a new school year, but in other ways, we know where they are academically so we can just get going.”

She’s excited to start building relationships with students.

“For some of the kids that I’ve been working with already through Zoom, I can’t wait to get them in the classroom and see what their potential is when all the pieces are in place for them more time and with books at the right level,” she said.

She’s expecting to see dramatic growth in reading and writing skills this quarter. Writing was harder to teach over Zoom

“These kids are ready to go,” she said. “This is the time of year when you see a lot of growth.”


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