South-Western City School District teachers, students return to all-in classes

Alan Froman
ThisWeek group
A school bus arrives to drop off students at the South-Western City School District's Hayes Middle School, where all-in classes resumed April 5.

The calendar said April 5, but it was the first day of school for South-Western City School District students – again.

"We've had a lot of first days this year, it seems," Hayes Intermediate School principal Michael Nesler said.

The district returned to all-in everyday in-person learning April 5 for students after using a blended model since Jan. 5.

Under the blended model, students at each building were split into two groups, with each attending a full day of school two days a week. Students engaged in online learning activities and assignments remotely the other three days.

South-Western began the school year with 100% remote learning.

April 5 felt like a new beginning, Nesler said.

"There was a lot of excitement," as students – all students, save those who are participating in the online Virtual Learning Academy for the entire school year – arrived at Hayes for the first day of traditional classes since March 2020, he said.

"It was a chance for old friends to reunite," Nesler said. "You might have seen someone on a Google Meet, but it's not the same as seeing them in person."

The first day of school usually is a mix of excitement and a little nervousness for students as they return to class, and this time was no different, said Melissa Kelly, a fifth-grade English Language Arts and Science teacher at Hayes.

But once students settled down, the day proceeded smoothly, she said.

"Our students have been so resilient through all of this," Kelly said. 

Despite – or perhaps because of – the challenges of moving from one learning model to another, she said, many students have become more responsible and organized learners. That will help them going forward in school and life, she said.

With all-in school back in session, students and staff are required to continue to follow safety protocols, including wearing masks throughout the day, except when eating lunch, using hand-sanitizing stations and maintaining social distance.

"We used the morning announcements to go over all that again, sort of like an NBC 'The More You Know' type of advertisement," Nesler said. "Reminding them that a mask needs to be over your mouth and nose and under your chin."

To prepare for all students returning to the classroom, Hayes teachers tried various arrangements of desks and tables to determine the best way to allow students to remain safely distanced, Kelly said.

"The district's been really good about providing us with plexiglass dividers to help with that," she said.

About 420 students are attending school in person each day at Hayes, Nesler said.

The school has four lunch periods each day, he said.

"We're using the entire cafeteria, which allows us to keep students at a safe distance from each other during lunch," Nesler said.

In normal times, only about half of the cafeteria space is used during lunch periods, he said.

Students who are uncomfortable about being in the cafeteria may choose to eat lunch in a classroom, Nesler said.

Richard Avenue Elementary School first-grade teacher Breanna Lilak said the biggest emotion she was feeling on the first day of all-in learning was relief.

"The last year in general has been such a roller-coaster for everyone," she said.  "Teaching and learning over a computer is a challenge."

It's wonderful to have her students all together in the classroom, Lilak said.

"There were a lot of smiles all around," she said. 

Richard Avenue fourth-grader Jaxson Barrett and his twin brother, Maddox, both said they were glad to be back to full-time school, although both said they've had to readjust after a year of blended and remote learning.

"I was very happy because I got to see all of my friends again," Maddox said. "I have friends I've known since preschool, but I haven't been able to see them for a year."

The return to all-in school "was a little stressful for me and I think other kids," Jaxson said.

Learning at home allowed him to plan a schedule that fit him best, he said.

Now it's back to school as usual and a set schedule everyone has to follow, Jaxson said.

Both brothers said recess isn't as much an escape as it usually is, with COVID-19 protocols in place and all students attending school every day.

"When only half the students were at school, you could use the whole playground," Jaxson said. "Now we have to stay in a certain zone with our class."

"I don't get to play with friends I know" because their class is required to remain in another section of the playground, Maddox said.

Throughout the year, students have adjusted well to having to wear masks throughout the day, except during lunch, Richard Avenue principal Cathy Moore said.

With the return of all-in school, Richard Avenue has scheduled five lunch periods, one for each grade level, she said.

The school's small size – Richard has about 350 students during normal times, and about 40 youngsters are participating in the Virtual Learning Academy – has made it easier to ensure students maintain a safe distance during lunch periods, Moore said.

"We have students sitting at the end of each table, and it's working out well," she said.

One of the biggest challenges has been arranging teachers' and aides' duty schedules, given the additional time needed to disinfect and clean the cafeteria between lunch periods and other protocols in place due to the pandemic, Moore said.

"Our teachers and staff and our students have been phenomenal in how they've handled everything," she said.

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