Back in session: RSS welcomes first group of students back for in-person classes

Published 12:10 am Tuesday, August 18, 2020

By Carl Blankenship

SALISBURY — Mary Stoddard has seen a lot in her 25 years of teaching. But she hasn’t seen anything quite like Monday — the first day of school for a portion of Rowan-Salisbury Schools students.

Stoddard, a seventh-grade English teacher at Southeast Middle School, said she was impressed with how students did. And her sentiments were echoed by educators across the district, many of whom went into Monday with a mixture of emotions that ranged from excitement to anxiety.

Fewer than half the students who would normally attend classes arrived at schools in the district on Monday. This is group A, which will attend Monday and Tuesday. The second group will come to school on Thursday and Friday. Thousands of students will only go to school virtually.

Rowan-Salisbury Schools Superintendent Lynn Moody asked families to be patient with the district as it works through the opening process, and said the goal for the first day is just to connect with students. She said parents should not be surprised if not much work goes home with students for the first two weeks.

Moody said there was learning loss after public schools were ordered to close in March in addition to the loss that always happens during the summer, and the schools will be taking things slow to start off the year. Moody, though, added kids are resilient and will catch up.

Moody spent her morning on Monday helping at Corriher-Lipe Middle School in Landis, where things were as close to a normal day as possible, albeit with many more car riders than usual.

By 7:30 a.m., when classes began, bus riders were inside and there were a handful of car riders still being screened. After about a month of planning, things appeared to go according to plan at Corriher-Lipe, one of the district’s 37 schools.

Moody, standing across the street as students arrived, said the 1923 facility was never meant to take in car riders. The district is also limited to 24 students on a bus. Moody said there were some backup bus drivers on hand for Monday and the district created new routes for the modified schedule.

Every student at every school in the district had their temperatures checked when they arrived. Students are supposed to fill out screening questionnaires before they arrive as well.

Kendra Kennedy, a seventh grader at Corriher-Lipe, arrived at the school with her mother, Alicia, and sister Sarah on Monday. Kendra said she was a little excited to go back to school, though she was not looking forward to the work.

Alicia said she is somewhat happy her students are returning to school and is fine with two days a week, but is also a bit worried about COVID-19.

“They still need to intermingle with their friends,” Alicia said.

Sarah said she is used to going to school five days a week and prefers that schedule. Sarah and Kendra both struggled with virtual learning when schools closed.

The girls said they dislike wearing the masks that they will be required to wear most of the day during school, but they have gotten used to it.

Tamara Hill dropped off her seventh-grade son on Monday. Hill said she is glad students are able to go to school. She said she feels confident in the safety measures and thought the school is handling it well.

“It went really well,” Hill said. “I had a little health screening that I had to fill out this morning. It was a little app, but it went really quickly.”

District Transportation Director Tim Beck was concerned about what bus drivers would find when they pulled up to schools leading up to Monday, but the day off went well. Beck said his department received few calls from parents with issues, and the district is still working to add students to routes.

Jennifer Brown, principal at Hurley Elementary School, said her students were in the building on time. At the high school level, West Rowan Principal Jamie Durant said student arrival was smooth as well, and the school had no issue with students complying with the requirement to wear face coverings.

For kindergarten students, Monday was likely their first experience with school. Moody said the most important thing for kindergartners is to pick the right teachers, and the district has teachers who can integrate students from all circumstances and backgrounds.

“We feel really confident in our kindergarten teachers,” Moody said. “They know 5 year-olds. They know that they’ll be anxious, they know that they’ll need some comforting.”

Brown said she was expecting difficulties, but she heard comments from staff about how well students did sanitizing their hands, wearing masks and maintaining social distance. Brown said the school does not plan on making major changes for the “second first day” on Thursday, and commended Moody for making sure schools planned well.

“We’re headed in the right direction,” Brown said.

Wendy Campbell, a sixth-grade science teacher at Southeast, also praised student safety habits on the first day, saying she was surprised by how well students did wearing masks and maintaining social distance.

“They’ve been doing it for months and they brought that practice into the building,” Campbell said.

Leeanne Larkin, seventh-grade math teacher and first-year teacher, said the day exceeded her expectations and the students took the precautions seriously. If a student got a bit too close to others or forgot to immediately cover their face after taking a sip of water, they were quick to correct the mistake, Larkin said.

There were challenges, though. Rooms had to be sanitized between classes and moving kids through hallways had to be coordinated carefully. It’s the reality of public school during COVID-19.

There were emotional challenges as well. Stoddard said she misses seeing students’ faces. At one point, she was able to take her class outside where they could space out and take off their masks.

“Some kids had braces and I didn’t even know they had braces,” Stoddard said. “It’s really different teaching kids in a mask where they can’t see your expression and trying to figure out what their expression is based on their eyes.

Campbell said the precautions made her feel better the reopening of school, though she admitted she is still nervous. She worries about what will happen if someone at the school contracts COVID-19, and she misses the interaction she can have with students when schools are open normally.

“I miss my kids being able to come down to my room and give me hugs and high fives,” Campbell said, tearfully. “I can’t see all of them every day like I used to, and that’s really difficult.”

About Carl Blankenship

Carl Blankenship has covered education for the Post since December 2019. Before coming to Salisbury he was a staff writer for The Avery Journal-Times in Newland and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2017, where he was editor of The Appalachian.

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