‘Like riding a bike’: RSS school year starts with five-day instruction, masks optional

Published 12:10 am Thursday, August 12, 2021

SALISBURY — Rowan-Salisbury Schools students poured into classrooms on Wednesday for a first day that looked more normal than any since March 2020.

Masks are optional. In-person attendance is five days per week. There are no cohorts for in-person attendance.

With about 1,100 students, West Rowan High School Principal Jamie Durant said the full capacity was the biggest difference from prior school years during the pandemic. During dismissal, the bus lots and car rider lines at the school were packed with students.

“I liked it,” Durant said. “I like seeing the parking lot full, I like seeing classrooms full, and I think that’s why we’re in this business.”

Durant said some of the school’s students had not seen their friends at school in 16 months because they were virtual last year. His priorities for the first day were to make sure everyone got on and off campus, visit every classroom and introduce himself to as many new students as he can.

“Going from a normal school environment to the past couple years, it definitely was weird,” Durant said.

Immediately after students were inside to start the day at Rockwell Elementary School, Principal Jennifer Warden said she was excited. It did not feel strange to see kids without masks or all students attending classes in one group instead of cohorts, Warden said.

“It’s like riding a bike, you jump right back in,” Warden said. “It didn’t feel weird. I thought it might, but it did not at all.”

Warden said the school is trying to take advantage of small class sizes and having everyone at school. She said teachers are masters at using every moment of the day as an opportunity.

“We have morning meeting time. They greet kids in the morning,” she said. There are all these opportunities woven into the day for the teachers to build relationships with one child, all day.”

Durant said the possibility of restrictions being reinstated is in the back of his mind, noting surrounding districts, including Kannapolis and Mooresville schools, have reversed course on optional masks.

“We know that potentially could happen,” Durant said. “We also know the potential of getting shut down, but you know our goal is to keep students in school, so we’ll do what we need to do to make sure students are in school, feel comfortable and feel safe while they’re here.”

The RSS Board of Education made masks optional in July, and has stuck to the policy, with the exception of a federal order requiring masks to be worn on public transportation, including school buses.

RSS has not discontinued other safety measures. The board renewed a contract for enhanced cleaning services this week and the district is attempting to keep students as spaced out as possible. The district is also complying with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order and quarantine rules mandated by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and Rowan County Health Department.

The district estimates about half of its staff have been vaccinated based on people who have volunteered their vaccine record.

Warden said she does not think educators will forget the previous year, and the staff will be ready if they have to make changes.

“We have the supplies. We know what to do now,” Warden said.

West Rowan design and drafting teacher Ashlynn McNeely said it was exciting and good to see kids interacting with each other. Her students drew visual representations of themselves as an icebreaker. She said the kids felt more open than last year.

McNeely said she is comfortable wearing a mask if required. She is more worried about the possibility of schools closing.

“I’m worried that we won’t be here, and I don’t want that to happen,” McNeely said.