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Kannapolis elementary students back in class five days

By Carl Blankenship
carl.blankenship@salisburypost.com

KANNAPOLIS – When the majority of students at Jackson Park Elementary School on Monday stepped inside the building for the first time since March, Principal Will Gibson said it felt like the first day of school for the third time since August.

Jackson Park and Kannapolis City Schools as a whole had been using a blended model since Aug. 17. Monday marked a full-time return for elementary students in the district.

“Very honestly, this morning was wonderful,” Gibson said. “Because it’s the closest we felt to normal in a long time.”

Gibson said there was more of a bustle in the halls like a normal school day, and students were able to see classmates who they hadn’t interacted with in person since March.

Fifth-grade teacher Angela Gillespie said her students previously had class meetings for all students to build relationships, but on Monday they were excited to see each other during recess.

Students previously attended two days a week, split into two group between Monday and Thursday. Friday was a planning day. Gov. Roy Cooper announced public elementary schools would be able to bring kids back in to class five days a week beginning Oct. 5. And while KCS Superintendent Chip Buckwell said the schools would not be ready to send students back in early October, administration did present a plan to the district board to reopen the schools on Monday.

Gibson said about 70% of students attended on Monday. Last week, the district was hosting about 30% of students a day. About 10% of families opted to move their students from all virtual to in-person during the changeover.

Shannon Jordan picked up her second grader and kindergartner from Jackson Park on Monday afternoon. Jordan said her kindergartner will get the hands-on attention she needs, and she is looking forward to having them school in more.

“The virtual learning was impossible for my family,” Jordan said, adding her students were still doing well spending two days in class each week and they are excited to be there more.

Gillespie said some of her students did everything they were assigned, and others have not logged on once. Gillespie said students falling behind worry her because they will take three end-of-grade tests this school year, and it will affect them for years to come.

Middle and high school students are not allowed to be back in school five days a week under “plan B,” effectively requiring the district to use the blended model because it limits population density in schools to 50%.

The state requires “minimal” social distancing under its “plan A” model, and Gibson said maintaining it can be challenging. Inside the school, desks are still spaced out far more than they normally would be. Second-grade teacher Whitley Helms said during a normal year the desks would be in groups wedged right next to each other, and she compared the current spacing to a testing environment.

The schools still have all the other protocols they follow. Everyone has to wear masks, there are hand sanitizing stations around every corner in the school and the students were social distancing as much as possible.

Teachers said they feel safe in the school. Buckwell pointed out the district has not been able to trace a single COVID-19 back to the schools since classes began. The district identified other sources like family gatherings.

“I feel very safe with what we have in place here,” Gillespie said.

The district has had a handful of cases since August, and reported a single new case over the past week, but there have been no clusters so far.

“I told the board that we would close down whatever we had to close down,” Buckwell said, adding the district is prepared to shut down classes or entire grade levels for quarantining if need be.

Asked about rising case counts across the state, Buckwell said he is worried, but the district is prepared to take whatever precautions it needs to. He was worried about students before the pandemic, too.

“I believe the precautions work,” Buckwell said, adding zero spread within schools is also a testament to the work teachers are doing.

Getting kids to and from school was mostly smooth. Buckwell said there was a late bus or two in the morning because of the extra students, but that was expected. At Jackson Park, students were dismissed and off campus in about half an hour.

Today will be a virtual day for the district. Jackson Park is a polling site on Election Day.

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