NSA: ‘No worries’ being back in school

Published 7:51 pm Wednesday, September 16, 2020

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Though Nansemond Suffolk-Academy students and teachers have made adjustments to their routines due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most say they have no qualms about resuming face-to-face instruction.

NSA staggered the start of the school year for students, with grades kindergarten through fifth beginning Aug. 26, grades 6-12 beginning the following day, and pre-kindergarten students starting Aug. 31. It has also staggered arrival and dismissal times.

It also put together a 23-page back-to-school guide, outlining the precautions it is taking to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. They include:

  • Daily temperature checks
  • Mandatory face coverings for students and staff in all common areas and classrooms
  • Reconfiguring classrooms for physical distancing
  • Putting up signs and messaging
  • Increased hand washing
  • Isolation rooms on both campuses
  • HVAC and air filtration systems inspected, updated
  • Increased cleaning measures
  • No water fountains being used
  • Limited use of common areas
  • Limiting the sharing of resources, supplies

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Students also eat lunch in their homeroom classes, and the school has staggered lockers and dismissal times between classes to help with crowding in hallways.

The school closed in March and transitioned to virtual learning for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year, and while teachers and students made the best of it, they were ready  to return.

Middle school teacher Jennifer Psimas said virtual learning was a difficult transition for her because she enjoys being around her students so much. She praised the school for the way it handled the transition to virtual learning.

“I am thrilled to be back, face-to-face with my students,” Psimas said. “I had no worries about returning to school. I was begging for in-person school.”

She said she is prepared should the school have to transition back to virtual learning. While face-to-face, Psimas’ and her students clean tables and chairs at the end of each class, and she also has a sink in her room as well as wipes and hand sanitizer available for students.

“Knowing we would have virtual and in-person learning this year, I made sure my lessons would translate well between both,” Psimas said.

For in-person teaching, Psimas has made adjustments, including buying a mask-bracket to wear under her mask to help students understand her speech.

“Instead of circulating around the classroom, I tend to stay at the front of the room this year,” Psimas said. “In World Geography, students work in groups regularly, so I adjusted my plans to accomplish this while remaining socially distant.”

Pre-kindergarten teacher Carole Mugaisi rearranged the furniture in her class to promote social distancing. In the pre-K classes, they replaced the tables with individual desks and chairs, each student has an individualized bin for toys that are cleaned frequently, and everyone washes their hands several times per day.

NSA students said they, too, feel safe being in school.

Senior Braedon McCauley said the COVID-19-related changes are a small sacrifice in order to be with their teachers and classmates at school.

“I have adjusted to the protocols,” McCauley said. “I don’t mind the masks at all. I’m used to having to wear it during the summer. I also have gotten used to sanitizing everything when I get to class and when I leave class.”

Aarti Patel, an eighth-grade student, has also made the adjustment.

“I feel extremely comfortable and safe about coming back to school with the protocols we have set to make sure that everyone is safe,” Patel said. “I am happy to see that everyone is safe, and the children and parents are following the directions so we can stay in school.”

Still, it has been an adjustment not being able to do things they could do previously.

“I have gotten used to it,” said fifth-grade student Miranda Hammond. “It is hard not to be able to hug my friends and teachers though.”

For Mugaisi, she stayed connected with students during the spring virtual learning period, but she was also ready to return.

“Last spring, we had live instruction and interaction every day with the students via Zoom, Seesaw and Facebook Live,” Mugaisi said. “I feel excited to be back and also feel that the school has taken all appropriate measures to ensure the safety of our students and me as a teacher. I felt no anxiety at all because I was confident in the measures taken to keep us safe.”

Students adjusted to virtual learning, but it took some adjustments.

“It was hard, because when I didn’t understand something I didn’t have the teacher there to help me.” said fifth-grade student Miranda Hammond.

Said Patel: “Virtual learning was very different and hard to understand at first, but everyone got the hang of it eventually. It wasn’t what I expected, and I’m glad to be back at school,” Patel said.

McCauley said he had a good experience with virtual learning.

“The teachers were well trained and ready to help us get through the school year,” McCauley said. “The assignments were challenging since they were to be done virtually and not when we were together in school. The teachers helped us get caught up in assignments and curriculum so we could finish the school year on time.”

While Psimas said the middle school students in her classes have handed everything well and wear their masks “without complaint,” it’s been a little more of an adjustment for Mugaisi’s pre-K class.

“It has been different because they can’t interact directly with each other during playtime and class time,” Mugaisi said. “However, it has been a smooth transition. They have adjusted to the new normal and are doing amazing.”

Mugaisi’s focus has been on maintaining a safe and clean environment with healthy students while they learn, though if the school has to return to virtual learning, she feels prepared.

“Should we return to virtual learning, I feel that we are more than prepared because we have the tools and technology to easily transition to virtual learning.”

Psimas said she would expect to easily adjust to teaching online again if necessary, as the spring gave her and other teachers and students an opportunity to see what worked well and what didn’t.

Upper School teacher Slavic Dudkovsky said his focus this year would be to stay calm for his students and parents, and any return to virtual learning “should not be an issue.”

Teachers hope for face-to-face instruction to continue throughout the year, while students, many of whom have gone months without seeing their friends, have been excited to return, even while wearing masks and handling increased safety measures. All said they feel safe at school and are looking forward to it.

McCauley said he was happy to be able to see his friends in person, rather than on Zoom. He also hopes some of the school’s senior traditions will be able to continue. Hammond said she has enjoyed seeing her friends, though she misses the recess period and seeing her friends in the other fifth-grade classes. Patel said that while it has been good to see everyone again, everyone is following the new rules and staying six feet from one another.

“I’m very excited and happy to start the new year,” Patel said, “and see what comes ahead.”