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Schools Transition to the “New Normal”

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By SARAH NACHIN

When school started in August, procedures were similar to last year, but there were a few changes also. There were adjustments to be made by school staff, administrators, students and parents.

At Spring Hill Elementary School (SHES), there was a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere, but certain Covid protocols were in place. For example, in the cafeteria, Pre-K and First Grade children chatted while they ate their lunches and, of course, masks were off. Principal Kristen Tormey explained that the tables are spaced out, children sit on only one side of the table and everyone faces forward. Plus, dots are placed on the seats so that the children sit only three to a side.

Ms. Tormey remarked, “One difference (between last year and this year) is the face covering mandate, although many staff and students are continuing to follow this safety precaution. Currently just 21% of the parents have opted out of masking.”

SHES students in Math class
SHES students in Math class
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SHES has also increased sanitization and disinfection of all common areas and
encourages social distancing when possible. Ms. Tormey emphasized that communication between the school and the parents is key to the safety of students, families and staff.

At Pine Grove Elementary School, teachers are doing their part to make the transition smooth for everyone and there are some notable differences from last year to this year.

Eve Cotroneo, a second grade teacher, remarked, “Last year many of the classrooms had desks settled in rows, so each student had their own space. Masks were mandatory, we weren’t accepting volunteers, and school occasions were either organized in such a way that person-to-person contact was minimized, or they just didn’t happen.”

For example, last year Open House at Pine Grove was done in short intervals with small groups of parents to minimize risk of exposure. This year, parents were welcome throughout the entirety of the event. With Covid still not completely gone, teachers have made adjustments to minimize the students’ risk of exposure.

“I am taking several small-but-mighty precautions regarding Covid. For starters, when working in small groups with my students, I wear a mask in an effort to prevent getting sick. My students have assigned seats, so they work with the same group of students throughout the year. This makes it easy to contact trace amongst my students in the event that one of them has been in close contact with someone who has Covid,” stated Ms. Cotroneo. 

SHES principal Kristen Tormey reading with student
SHES principal Kristen Tormey reading with student

She has also gone over sanitary procedures and expectations numerous times with her students and they know to cover their mouths when they cough, wash their hands after handling their masks or before using manipulatives, etc. She also keeps a supply of masks for the students who want to wear masks but misplace theirs. At the end of each day, she sanitizes all the surfaces in her classroom.

Students walk in line order to and from their classrooms and assigned seats have been implemented school-wide, in computer labs and the other “specials” classes, such as art and music. Ms. Cotroneo feels that this allows the students freedom to work together and learn from each other, while remaining as safe as possible.

Ms. Cotroneo admitted that there have been a few snags since school reopened.

“Students and even teachers have had to quarantine already. Even though this makes teaching twice as difficult due to gaps in instructional time, I believe it’s also made us stronger and more flexible educators. We’ve had to communicate with families more often than normal due to students learning at home and I’ve even recorded mini-lessons in my classroom to send to families for when their child is home sick.”

Yasmeen Anis, another Pine Grove Elementary teacher, is also adapting to the new normal. “Every school year has its challenges but I tell my students that we will adapt, overcome, and make the best we can of our year together. Although interacting with students involves less hugs and high fives the past two years, the relationships that I develop with my students are as strong as ever,” Ms. Anis stated. 

Her class arrangement and scheduling has adapted to Covid protocols. Her classroom instruction is broken into 10-15 minute chunks for whole group instruction and small group rotations to make sure students are not in close contact for longer than 15 minutes. Although she seats her fourth-grade students in groups of four, they are able to move around the room with a clipboard if they feel like they need more space away from the others. They’re also allowed to sit on the floor and work if they like. Ms. Anis also walks around campus with a bottle of hand sanitizer and gives each student a squirt of sanitizer as they go to the computer labs, recess, lunch, and in between other transitions. 

SHES students working on the floor
SHES students working on the floor

Since masks are not mandatory, Ms. Anis had a discussion with her students at the beginning of the school year. “We talked about how it was a decision (wearing a mask or not) that they needed to make with their family about what they wanted to do and what made them feel comfortable and safe. We stressed that no matter what, we would not judge or make fun of others for choosing to wear masks or not. All of the students were really understanding of the situation.” 

At all grade levels, elementary through high school, a big challenge is the learning gap for students who were either digital learners full-time last year or who have started this year already missing several days of school due to having to quarantine. Teachers meet their students where they are and try to catch them up as much as possible. They send work home to make sure parents are aware of the gap and can help their kids catch up.  

And what about the students? How do they feel about the changes brought about by Covid? Most are happy to be back learning and socializing with their friends. 

Kaylynn King, a third-grader at Pine Grove, did online schooling last year. Although she did not have the opportunity to socialize at school, she was not totally isolated from her friends. 

“I liked to go swimming at one of my friend’s houses and sometimes we’d have sleepovers and playdates.”

Fourth-grader Dean Colonna did a combination of online and in-school learning. 

In second grade I did a little bit online, but last year I did not. I did in-person classes. It is more competitive and harder and I have more classmates this year,” Deann remarked. 

Although high school is a different type of environment than elementary school, the protocols and challenges are similar. 

JB Dill, a Career and Technical Education (CTE) Work Experience teacher at Hernando High School, commented, “Starting the year thinking we were back to normal, to then change to masks and no field trips and large gatherings was a definite downer.  Events are sort of happening (sports), but other events are not. It’s very disappointing to the teachers, as well as the kids.”

This past spring, in spite of the pandemic, the school did have a prom – outside, of course. The same is planned for the fall Homecoming festivities.   

Teachers do not have the “opt-out” option. Even if they are vaccinated, they still wear masks or must be more than six feet away from the students. Ms. Dill’s CTE students are still participating in work experience at local businesses and follow whatever guidelines those companies have in place. 

April LaBelle, an ESE (Exceptional Student Education) teacher at Hernando High, has had challenges somewhat unique to her situation. “It’s been a more difficult start to the year than last year. We have an influx of students and not enough teachers. We don’t even have enough substitutes. Some of our students think that when they are out on quarantine, they don’t need to make up work. The amount of late make-up work from absent students is tremendous. Learning new technology is also a struggle. But I love that our kids are happy to be back in school,” Ms. LaBelle remarked. 

Getting some of the students to understand that Covid is still a threat has been challenging. Many congregate in the hallways and courtyards and even share drinks. Since most of her students have opted out of wearing masks, Ms. LaBelle won’t let them work in groups for longer than ten minutes. Everything taught can be accessed from home which makes it easier when students have to stay home. 

Another issue is teachers leaving. Other challenges stem from having to administer retake exams from last year and students believing that they are invincible. Despite all of this, there’s a “can-do” attitude at Hernando High School. 

“We handle them (the challenges) head-on. Hernando High is great. Our teachers help each other and we’ve all become more flexible over the last few years. I love that I get to work here. The optimism of our staff and of our students is contagious. We’re making it work,” Ms. LaBelle concluded. 

Weeki Wachee High School students Courtney McDermott, a junior, and Sevy Diaz, a senior, both agree that the students relish the increased freedom they have this year. Courtney chose in-person learning last year at her school in Texas.  

“I like the social environment of school. If I was at home doing online I wouldn’t have the self-discipline to accomplish as much. And it’s very lonely too,” she stated.

Sevy also attended brick-and-mortar school last year and noted the differences between last year and this year. “Last year we couldn’t walk around. We had to go straight to class. Seats were spaced in the lunchroom. But the major difference is the masks. Last year they were required. This year, they’re not.  

The two concurred that the teachers are less strict this year. 

“There’s more freedom to hang out where we don’t have to social distance much,” Courtney commented. 

Teachers who want to be lax can be lax and those that want to be cautious can stay cautious,” Sevy added. 

An important part of the equation is the parents. Even in ordinary times, parental support makes the learning environment better for the students and the teachers. 

Wanda Chabot has three children who all attend Faith Christian Academy. Four-year-old Emma attends full-day Pre-Kindergarten. Five-year-old Isabella is in Kindergarten and six-year-old Gabriel attends first grade. Last year, they attended school in person but were quarantined twice, each for two weeks. 

“This year is easier without the masks. The ability to see the formation of sounds and letters and the clarity of speech without the mask has made it easier,” Mrs. Chabot commented. “The chaos of masks and quarantines made last year extremely hard.” 

Being at a private school with much smaller class sizes makes it easier to make the decision to do “traditional” schooling, Mrs. Chabot believes. 

“The ability for them to distance in the classroom, eat outside, and open communication with the teachers by text and in person on a daily basis helped to keep the kids safe and put their education as well as social development in the forefront even during the pandemic,” she concluded.

Whether public or private, elementary, middle, or high school, the key to transitioning to this new normal is openness and a positive attitude from the parents, students, teachers, administrators, and staff. 

As Ms. Cotereno states, “I wish more people would see the good in all of this. Sure, Covid makes it difficult to be close to other people, but it also proves how resilient we all are – we’re collaborating despite all of the obstacles. If our students can learn in a pandemic, I’d say they are smarter and more determined than they give themselves credit for!”

In school, as in other aspects of life – work, home, business, socializing – we are all adjusting to new protocols and new ways of doing things. Hopefully, sometime in the not too distant future, life will return to how it was before this pandemic changed everything.    

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