By Mary C. Mello
On the weekend before Union Elementary School’s first day, Casper Jacobson was excited. He said it would be “awesome” to see his classroom and classmates. His brother, Simon, couldn’t wait to be with everyone again. First-grader Julia Nunnelley was eager to play with friends and “learn.” Many Montpelier children shared their enthusiasm, but there may have been others who were anxious. They knew the school they were returning to would not be the same one they walked out of almost six months before.
On Monday, March 16, 2020, the school began to lock down. By the end of the week, children had been sent home, families had picked up their packets of school work, and the building was closed to everyone except for the cleaning crew and principal Ryan Heraty.
Teachers planned strategies to connect with their students. Some talked about using Zoom. Some may have been wondering “What’s Zoom?” Faculty and staff were worried about the effect of weeks or even a month away from the classroom. How would they help their students prepare for all those special end-of-the-year events; performances, field trips, end-of-the-year assessments, graduation? Few wanted to consider the possibility that the 2019–2020 school year was over for good.
On September 8, 2020, students came back to an altered school environment. In front of the building metal dividers guided them to gather with their group in their designated area. Morning health checks are part of every new school day.
The office staff is still there to greet them; however, they now work within Plexiglas surrounds. There are no sounds of ball playing coming from the gym or singing from the music room. This year every child will work, play, and eat within their own special cohort, their pod. This means no going out of the classroom for PE, music, art, library, or even lunch. Teachers of “special” classes will create video lessons.
As children walk into the building they follow arrows glued to the floor and designed to make distancing easier. At least two adults are assigned to each classroom. This team teaching limits the number of new adults coming into the room and makes it possible for the school to reduce the need for substitutes. Even the kindergarten classes will be working at desks placed 3 to 6 feet apart, and each child will be provided with their own set of supplies. No borrowing markers. No lending crayons. Sharing is out in 2020–2021.
Masks, however, are definitely in. Children, except for those with certain medical or behavioral conditions, must wear them indoors throughout the day except when eating or drinking. They may be able to remove the masks when outdoors if distancing can be maintained. Teachers will wear two — a face shield and a standard face mask.
When the district offered parents a choice of virtual or in-person learning, 80 percent of district families requested in-person. Getting ready for this option involved ordering air purifiers for every classroom. Families joined together to donate two fans for each room as well.These are visible changes, but much of the work done over the summer on IAQ (indoor air quality) will not be visible to students or adults.
If new things were added, some things had to be taken away. Cloth-covered furniture, dress-up clothes, soft toys, and puppets are considered a high risk for transmission of viruses. Frequently handled materials and furnishings such as door knobs as well as playground equipment must be cleaned several times a day. Books and paper products, however, are not considered high risk.
The school looks different but many things haven’t changed. Bulletin boards with welcome signs and the names of children still decorate the walls. A poster reminds children that kindness and taking care of others are valued at Union Elementary School. A “butterfly garden” in another room waits for the arrival of caterpillars.
Nothing is more important to young children than recess, and recess is still part of every day’s schedule. However, only one pod will be allowed on the playground at a designated time. Fortunately, the school has two playgrounds. Outdoor learning has always been part of the curriculum, and this year classes may gather outside for science, writing, or independent reading. Each class has been given a dedicated space for its outdoor classroom.
All the effort that’s gone into preparation for this new school year allows students to return to the building, to learn with their friends, and to be together in a way that, if not familiar, will still be comforting.
A few decades from now, these young students may be parents themselves, walking their children to school on a bright fall morning. The adults will have stories to tell about September of 2020, but their children may want to talk only of their new lunchbox, their new teacher, and their own first day of school.