Laminated hands and car desks: How schools are welcoming kids back

Educators are getting creative as districts prepare for in-person reopenings this spring.

Bouncing on the balls of her feet, eight-year-old Lyla Whyte could hardly contain her excitement as she waited in line for Dwight D. Eisenhower Elementary School to reopen March 1. Her mother, Cherie Whyte, looked on with equal parts pride and nervousness.

“We’ve spent the year keeping them ‘safer at home,’ and now the thought of having them away, in someone else’s care, makes me feel like a mom of a newborn all over again—a bit anxious,” the Corona, California, mom admits.

Like the Whytes, many parents are eager—and anxious—to get their kids back into classrooms. After all, many fully remote kids are falling behind. On average, students who attended virtual-only classes in 2020 lost the equivalent of three months of math learning and one-and-a-half months of reading instruction, according to a report by Curriculum Associates. And school districts nationwide—from California to Virginia—have reported huge increases in failing grades during the pandemic.

Spurred on by President Joe Biden’s directive to open classrooms by May as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest school safety guidelines, districts are in full-on transition mode to welcome back in-person students. But how do you achieve that after a year of virtual classroom instruction? How do teachers keep students—and themselves—safe? What’s the best way to ease children into the transition while still keeping them engaged in learning?  

As many schools grapple with how to reopen classrooms, others have already experienced some success. Here’s what some schools across the country have been doing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during the transition to in-person learning.

Doing the prep work for reopening

As with any good project, the secret to success is planning, planning, and more planning. That’s why many educators and administrators started the preparations to reopen months in advance.

“Special teacher committees were formed, grade levels began meeting to discuss plans, and our principal provided a ton of support and guidance,” says Jillian Shafer, who teaches at the Los Alamitos Elementary in Los Alamitos, California. “It was a huge team effort.”

Similarly, at the New Mexico International School in Albuquerque, the leadership team started meeting weekly as early as March 2020 to review the latest information and guidance from Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and the state’s public education department. In order to reopen for hybrid instruction for K-7 a year later, extra triple-layer masks were procured for students and staff, upgraded air filtration systems and ventilation fans were installed, and tables and chairs were adjusted so students could sit six feet apart. (A smaller, five-to-one student-teacher ratio for grades K-2 started in August 2020.)

In Gloucester County, Virginia, the district and county spent a whopping $2.3 million in federal funds on school buses, personal protection equipment, partitions, and clean-air technology before reopening in September 2020.

Smaller towns with limited resources got creative. For example, when municipal schools in the tiny oil-and-gas town of Lake Arthur, New Mexico, were getting ready to welcome fourth through 12th graders back to school on February 8, superintendent Elisa Begueria called her daughter’s pediatrician and told him that she wanted to have a doctor on-site. It was the catalyst for a partnership between the local BCA Medical Associates and Lake Arthur Municipal Schools.

Now twice a week, any child 18 and under can meet with an attending physician at the school for medical checkups and treatments. The service is also open to members of the community whose median household income is less than $35,000.

“Our district’s 100 kids should be treated the same as any kid in other districts. That’s really what equitable means,” Begueria says. “I wanted to make sure that our students had access to the best—not only academically, but in other areas that we could help.”

Fostering a safe but engaging environment

Transitioning kids back into a safe and welcoming environment is another challenge school districts are dealing with. Some started before kids even entered the building.

For instance, the Whyte children of Corona, California, watched YouTube videos created by their principal that included daily announcements, jokes, and classroom tours to prep students. “The videos helped the kids visualize what their classes would look like, what drop-off would entail, and what changes have occurred on the campus,” Whyte says. (Read this article about easing your child back into in-person learning.)

In Shafer’s fourth-grade class, each desk had its own plexiglass shields. But that made it hard for Shafer to spot kids when they raised their hands, so she came up with a clever solution: She glued colorful, hand-shaped cutouts to a ruler with each student’s name. “Not only can they raise these high when they want to share, they also use them to lean across the aisle and give a high-five to a classmate.”

Across the country, St. Barnabas Episcopal School in DeLand, Florida, reopened on August 26, 2020. To help kids transition into their new, safer learning spaces, first-grade teachers Patricia Dovi and Kim Martin transformed each desk into colorful jeeps using construction paper.

“The kids’ initial reactions were pure excitement,” Dovi says. “They loved that they had their own car and key, and a few immediately understood that the plexiglass was the windshield without being told.

“We have fun decorating them throughout the school year with ‘wreaths’ and saying things like, ‘You can’t drive your jeep if you aren't facing forward.’”

And in Lexington, Kentucky, elementary school principal Gerry Brooks passed out hand sanitizer bottles shaped like Crayola crayons in bright primary colors to his students when the school partially reopened in March.

“Small things helped make this transition back to school successful,” he says. “The students loved coming back to something just for them.”

Other schools are working within the confines of smaller budgets. When the New Mexico International School in Albuquerque didn’t have the funding to install plexiglass around desks, they decided to embrace the great outdoors. Teachers got permission slips from families to take the students to the public park across the street to have lunch, play in the grass, and do outdoor sessions. (Here’s an article on why schools have turned to outdoor learning during the pandemic—and how parents can, too.)

“I also have a pair of big butterfly wings that I put on occasionally to reinforce distance, but also bring a smile to kids’ faces,” says Alisa Cooper de Uribe, a first-grade Spanish immersion teacher at the school.

During break time, students are encouraged to bring their “recess kits” with activities and toys like jump ropes. Cooper de Uribe recalls the time a parent brought in a pile of cardboard boxes so students could make “horses” by cutting a hole into the top and holding it up to their waist.

“They can then gallop around their area of the recess patio while also maintaining their personal space,” she says, adding that the school is exploring other creative ideas like outdoor line dancing and nature art projects.

Embracing new ideas—but keeping some of the old

Despite the challenges of virtual learning, many schools are considering the benefits that the mix of remote and in-person learning have provided over the past year and adapting their classrooms as a result.

For instance, though most children benefit from attending school in-person, some children are faring better with remote learning. Parent and seventh-grade teacher Chris Brude says his son Miles is thriving at the Southern California-based Irvine Unified School District’s Virtual Academy, a fully virtual school that has curriculum designed specifically for online learning.

“He has benefited from the freer environment that virtual learning provides,” he says. “He also has good home support, because we’re here to keep him accountable and help him manage his work.”

Launched prior to the pandemic, Irvine Virtual Academy has become so popular, it will become a permanent learning model offered at other schools in the Irvine Unified district later this year. Similarly, the West Contra Costa Unified School District in Richmond, California, is planning a new K-12 virtual academy for 2021–22.

Another advantage of offering online classes to kids who are flourishing in the virtual environment? Reduced classroom size. Teachers have long championed the benefits of smaller classrooms, and the hybrid-learning model introduced during the pandemic provided rare insights into its effectiveness.

In Shafer’s school district, for example, families and teachers who wanted online learning are enrolled in a separate program, which means Shafer can focus solely on her smaller in-person class.

“There is beauty in a hybrid model because it reduces our class size in half,” she says. “I am able to more closely see student progress, struggle, and achievement.”

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