Westerville seniors describe blended experience, return to daily instruction

Marla K. Kuhlman
ThisWeek group
First-grader Muhammad Kourouma greets Rocky Raccoon, McVay Elementary School's mascot, as kindergartner Lily Fullroth waves while heading to the building from the school bus March 8.

Many Westerville seniors are glad to be back in school for daily, in-person instruction and look forward to finishing their high school careers with their classmates and teachers.

About 12,100 students who were in the blended-learning model returned to daily, in-person instruction March 8, whereas 2,500 students remain in distance learning for the remainder of the year through the Westerville Virtual Academy, said Greg Viebranz, the district's executive director of communications and family engagement.

District administrators say the transition thus far has been a positive one, and they’re looking forward to offering activities in a safe manner this spring.

Senior experience

Ava Hampton, a Westerville Central High School senior, said it was difficult being in school one week and off the next through the blended model.

“The week off felt like a vacation,” she said. “It was harder not being on a strict schedule.”

Hampton said she’s excited to be back in school every weekday with her friends. 

“The last quarter of the year will be good, being with the rest of my class and finishing our senior year together,” she said.

Being a volleyball player, Hampton said, it was weird not having a student section, but it was nice that parents could attend to give support.

Peter Pedrozo, a Westerville South High School senior, said the past year has been like nothing he’s ever experienced.

“Starting online, it didn’t feel like we were in school,” he said. “I wasn’t getting my mind engaged. We went one week on, one week off. You go to school, learn something. Then when you go home, you have questions and can’t ask teachers. It was chaotic.”

Pedrozo said going back full time is beneficial to him academically. 

“When I have a question, I can ask the teacher the next day,” he said. “There’s more of a structured program. There’s more of a connection. It’s definitely good getting back.” 

The National Honor Society member said he has missed being able to participate in the usual number of athletic contests in football and basketball because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

“Being this is my last year, you want to have fun and finish out strong,” Pedrozo said. “There weren’t students at games. The atmosphere wasn’t the same.”

He said he’s just happy to be back in an environment with no distractions. 

“You’re focusing your attention on learning and growing your mind, which I love,” Pedrozo said.

Sylvester Bockarie, a Westerville North High School senior, said he and his classmates have missed out on the traditional senior rose ceremony, homecoming and winter formal. 

“The past year was a lot harder getting school work done with not being able to communicate with teachers as well,” he said. “Coming back, it was easier to communicate with teachers and perform better in the classroom. I could get answers to questions almost immediately.”

Bockarie said it’s more motivating to be in the classroom than at home. 

As a member of the football, wrestling and track teams, he said, it has been challenging.  

“(COVID-19) made it harder,” he said. “Everything was more restrictive.”

North senior Aubrey McMahon said students really needed to push themselves in blended instruction.

“Some of my harder classes, it was harder to get motivated to do my work, rather than a teacher being there to help me,” she said. “You need(ed) more self-motivation to get your work done. It’s all up to you, no one pressuring you.”

McMahon said she thought it might be overwhelming going back to school for in-person instruction every day.

“I’m not used to being around that many people,” she said. “I definitely found myself more tired after school. I wasn’t used to the social interaction.”

She said it definitely was good seeing her teammates from tennis and lacrosse back in school. 

“It was nice to get that teaching time with my teachers,” McMahon said. “It was nice to not have to watch video of them and see friends I haven’t seen in a year.”

McVay homecoming

Jason Fullen, McVay Elementary School assistant principal, said the first week of being back was a lot of fun, welcoming students back together again.

He said McVay has about 400 students who are in-person every day at the school, with 131 students enrolled in WVA. 

Fifth-grader Brooklyn Slaven waves at Rocky Raccoon, McVay Elementary School's mascot, as he greets students arriving to school March 8.

Fullen said the first day back featured music playing on the speakers, all student entrances decorated with balloons and streamers, signs and banners posted all over the building and all staff and Rocky Racoon, the school mascot, outside greeting students.

“It really was like a homecoming as many students had not seen each other in person since last March,” Fullen said. “That day we also hosted virtual pep assemblies where we got to welcome students back and pump up the Pioneer PRIDE (standing for Positive attitude, Respect, Integrity, Determination, Effort) in the building.”

He said the PTA was instrumental in helping with much of the setup and decorating, along with the school's PBIS/SEL (Positive Behavior Intervention Supports and Social-emotional Learning) committee, who planned much of the day. 

“Our single goal was to make the day filled with joy and to make each student feel excited to be back together again at McVay,” Fullen said. 

Future plans

Superintendent John Kellogg said he had visited schools during the first week of students’ return.

“I simply can’t say enough about everything that our staff, students and families have done to prepare for our schools getting back to in-person, daily instruction for our children,” he said. “On the first two days back, we had sent our district-level administrators out to buildings to provide support and see how things were going, and by all accounts, it was a positive transition back.”

Although some spaces have to be redesigned, Kellogg said, all other safety measures that have been followed during blended learning – wearing masks, washing and sanitizing hands and keeping surfaces clean – all remain in place and the students are used to following them. 

“People have really been creative in their planning and preparation for this moment,” he said. “In some cases, our schools have flip-flopped the use of some of their spaces to meet physical-distancing standards. For example, because kids are eating with their masks off, some schools have extended their cafeteria into their gymnasiums to provide appropriate spacing between students as they eat.”

He said others were able to keep all students in the lunchroom by adding windowed barriers between students so they still could socialize safely. 

“Our schools and staff have done a great job addressing these kinds of logistical challenges in a way that keeps students and staff safe,” Kellogg said. “As for classroom spaces, because students are wearing masks the entire time, we’re following health officials’ recommendations of having a minimum of 3 feet between students. However, many teachers have taken extra furniture and other items out of their classrooms to exceed that 3-foot minimum.”

He said the district is looking at all spring events, particularly those for graduating seniors, for ways to still offer them in a safe manner. 

“One thing that we’re excited about, now that the governor has expanded attendance for stadiums and other venues, is that it looks like we’re heading into our stadiums for graduation this year,” Kellogg said. “Those plans are in the works, and students are giving us some great ideas about how we can make things really special and memorable for them.”

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla