Jaylen Crist’s third-graders at Crozet Elementary were a little quiet at the start of the school day until she led them in a game of “Would You Rather?”
That started the conversations among students who have spent the last nine weeks getting to know one another through a computer screen.
“It feels like the first day but I have a leg up because I know them,” she said.
In her classroom, they sat six feet apart and wore masks, staples of school during the COVID-19 pandemic. Crist, who played music to get students pumped up, said she wanted students to feel safe and happy. She’ll have another group of kids tomorrow as part of the hybrid learning model that began Wednesday.
“We’re just trying to make kids feel safe,” she said. “It’s good to take it slow. … We’ll continue to build relationships. The instruction will come and mask wearing will be natural and so will social distancing.”
Throughout the school division, more than a thousand elementary students walked into school buildings Wednesday morning. Their first stop was to get their temperature checked, one of several new routines students experienced as the county school division began twice a week in-person classes for preschoolers through third-graders. Most students are learning virtually during Stage Three of the division’s reopening plan.
“Teachers, as they normally do, are teaching from day one, and in this case the curriculum is how to be safe at school,” schools Superintendent Matt Haas said.
Haas visited Crozet and Brownsville elementaries Wednesday morning. Haas said Stage Three was a “good first step,” since the smaller numbers in schools during Stage Three will allow the division to make sure new strategies and protocols are working and manageable.
“I’m so happy to see you,” he said to a group of Crozet second-graders waiting in line for the restroom.
Prompted by their teacher, the students showed Haas their eagle wings, spreading their arms out to the side or putting both in front of them as a way to make sure they are keeping their distance from one another.
As he walked through Brownsville and Crozet elementaries, he said students, parents and staff were excited but there was a nervous tension about how things would go.
Many teachers have spoken out during public comment at school board meetings over the last several months about their fears of returning to the classroom and whether instruction that follows the COVID-19 precautions would be effective. Some teachers have taken leaves of absence, resigned or retired rather than teach in-person; still, division officials have said they have enough people to work in the buildings.
No outbreaks in K-12 schools have been reported in the Thomas Jefferson Health District as other public school systems have restarted in-person classes. In the county schools, 14 employees and one contractor have tested positive for COVID-19 since Sept. 8, according to the division’s dashboard, though officials said they didn’t contract the virus while at work.
Haas said his biggest takeaway from this school year so far is that teachers can do anything.
“It’s been amazing how courageous they’ve to step into that environment and be effective, and now they’re showing again that they can reshuffle the deck and get started again,” he said.
As part of Stage Three, more students also can come into the buildings for in-person assistance with online learning, including those who haven’t been engaging with learning virtually, as determined by the schools’ principals. The division didn’t have an exact number of the students who are going into the buildings for that assistance.
Middle and high school students also can gather in-person for extracurricular activities, while about 75 to 100 high school students are participating in athletic conditioning activities each day.
At Crozet Elementary, about 51 students were in the building Wednesday and another 50 will attend classes Thursday. Percentages of students attending in-person vary by each school ranging from 44.5% to 73.1%, according to division data presented last month.
The first goal for teachers, administrators and support staff is keeping everyone in the building safe, said Gwedette Crummie, principal of Crozet.
“I’m looking forward to them feeling comfortable and safe and more engaged in their learning,” she said.
Crummie said the school staff was planning to have 11 students in each class, but as they spaced out desks, they found that the rooms would only allow up to eight.
So, some larger classes in the first and third grade were moved to larger rooms, such as the auditorium.
Crist’s class was one of those. She said when she found her room didn’t have enough space for 11 students, she and other staff members worked together to move her class from the third-grade wing downstairs.
“It was a village effort,” she said.
With the second quarter underway, the countdown has begun to the next milestone — a decision on classes for the third quarter.
The division has pushed back its timeline for next quarter’s recommendation from early December to Jan. 14. The School Board will make a decision Jan. 21, according to a presentation for this week’s board meeting. Under Stage Four, all students could choose hybrid learning.
Division staff said in the presentation that there’s no assumption that they’ll move into Stage Four in the third quarter, but early February would be the earliest Stage Four start date. More details for Stage Four planning will be presented during the meeting on Thursday.
“We know that we need to do a great job in the schools and continue to do a great job in the community with mitigation,” Haas said. “We haven’t had an outbreak in the school, so we want to keep it that way.”
Haas said that he’ll be watching to see if schools can continue to follow newly established protocols when cases are reported and limit spread of the virus.
“If we can do that and we can be effective doing that and keeping people safe, I think we’ll be in good shape,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean we want to add more students. It just means that we’re in good shape, and we can stay in a learning mode.”