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‘We’re going to take care of your babies’

A first day like no other, the return of students is at hand

Part 3 in a multi-part series as students return to in-person learning for the first time since March 13, 2020.

Superheroes often wear masks as part of their get-ups and beneath them reveal little about themselves.

But the masked ones greeting students at the entrances to elementary schools Monday will likely be dealing with myriad emotions when the first groups of children filter into classrooms for the first time in just over a year as they return to in-person learning two days per week.

“I’m sure a bunch of my teachers will be tearing up,” said Nansemond Parkway Elementary School Principal Jennifer Conner. “I know I will be. It’s just a big emotional experience.”

Taylor Flick, a kindergarten teacher at Florence Bowser Elementary School, described herself being in a daze more than two weeks after Gov. Ralph Northam last spring announced he would close schools. On that last day, March 13, 2020, many thought at the time it would be a temporary pause of a few weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic, not the year and two days it turned out to be for students in Suffolk Public Schools.

A few days before the first students were to get off the bus and get dropped off at school, she and teachers from the division’s 11 elementary schools are set for a new normal while helping them navigate pandemic-induced social and academic challenges.

“It was, and still is, very crazy to think that this would have ever happened,” Flick said. “I never would have thought that I would be teaching kindergarten students through a computer screen for an entire year. However, I think once this school year started, it began to feel more real. The emotions will definitely be running high on Monday morning as I see these students walking back into the buildings and to see their smiles, excitement and eagerness to learn and to be back.”

The smiles may be hard to discern through the mandatory masks that everyone has to wear, but they’re likely to be felt. Flick’s mother, Judy Flick, a kindergarten teacher at Mack Benn Jr. Elementary School, said it will be difficult not to see the outward emotions of her students.

“The hardest thing for me will be not being able to give my students hugs and high-fives and them not being able to see me smiling at them or see them smiling back at me under their masks,” Judy Flick said.

With everyone having been affected differently by the pandemic, teachers and staff will be closely monitoring their students’ social and emotional well-being, even more than focusing on academics and learning loss.

“My focus will first and foremost be making sure my students feel safe and loved while in my classroom,” Judy Flick said. “Then we will focus on strengthening their basic reading, writing and math skills. Kindergarten is the foundation for all learning to come and the most important thing I can do as a teacher is teach students to love learning.

“No matter what the physical classroom may look like, it will feel like a warm and loving environment where students can take chances, make mistakes, explore and learn to their fullest potential while still being socially distanced and safe.”

And whether students are in-person or remaining virtual, Conner said they will have whatever support they need.

“What we’re planning for each grade level is pretty much whatever we teach in a week for the hybrid students is going to be the same for the virtual students,” Conner said. “One day of hybrid learning is really going to equal two days of virtual instruction, so (it’s about) being able to plan it out, pace it out and provide the supports they need.”

Virtual students, Conner said, will still get their guided instruction. They’re still going to be meeting in small groups receiving phonological awareness literacy screening tutoring — a state-provided screening method for the state’s Early Intervention Reading Initiative — and Title I tutoring.

“Equity, we feel, is across the board for all students,” Conner said.

Don’t expect high-fives and hugs, but do expect to find staff and students embracing new ways to express their emotions and perform classroom tasks.

“They love giving us hugs, but we’ve got alternatives for it right now,” Conner said.

Signs all over Nansemond Parkway and other elementary schools will show students how to do safe greetings, virtual hugs, air hugs and elbow bumps, and there will be plenty of signs to remind people to wear masks and keep at least six feet apart.

Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III, who plans to visit the division’s elementary schools during the opening week of hybrid learning, is eager to have children back in classrooms.

He planned to hold one last principals’ meeting Friday to talk about school climate and culture, continuing to urge them and their staffs to provide a warm welcome for students upon their return.

“There’s going to be a level of excitement, especially from kids,” Gordon said, “and we want to make sure our staff can model those mitigation strategies and to not be afraid to tweak some things based on what you see.”

Most elementary classrooms will have anywhere from six to 12 students, with at least one virtual teacher designated for each grade level for those opting not to return to school in a hybrid environment.

Across the division’s elementary schools, 60%, or roughly 3,750 students based on fall 2020 enrollment data, are scheduled to be a part of the hybrid learning environment, coming to school twice per week while continuing with virtual learning on the other three days.

While the division has been planning on students’ return, essentially, since they left last March, efforts have ramped up in the last three weeks as the Board had agreed to send hybrid students back to school.

“With the elementary group, in particular, we had to make sure that we looked at the number of hybrid students from that change option that they had, the number of virtual students, and then we had to look at class sizes,” said Chief of Administrative Services Dr. Suzanne Rice.

From there, the hybrid group had to be divided into two to even out the number of children returning to school.

Then it had to look at staffing and space to do in-person, and then make sure it was meeting state guidelines on virtual learning. It also had to factor in staff who still cannot come in due to underlying health conditions. And Gordon said some are waiting to get their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine before returning.

Rice said bus routes had to be designed by hand. They were tested March 8 and March 9, adjustments made and then the routes were posted online March 10. She said the division has enough drivers currently, but if any have to be out, it may have to do some double-runs. Meal deliveries will continue on Fridays when students are not in-person, with those covering five days’ worth of food.

When she began teaching virtual last spring, Taylor Flick said she focused the teaching of her kindergarten students at Florence Bowser on core knowledge topics such as letters and sounds, writing skills, number identification and writing, and things they had already covered.

“The students worked through so many challenges and gained so many new social skills that will help them in the future,” she said.

For her mother, teaching the same grade level at Mack Benn Jr., she had to get used to operating virtually.

“I am old school and use lots of hands-on materials in my classroom,” Judy Flick said. “Changing to a totally virtual classroom took extensive work, planning and creating lessons, and hours of training and experimenting with technology.”

That was something Taylor Flick and her students had to work through also.

“But for the students specifically, they were longing for friends and buddies to play with,” Taylor Flick said. “Many of my students have never been in a school setting before, and only know a few neighbors that live around them. Kindergarten is huge for students socially, and that is something I really had to focus on.”

She spent time during morning meeting learning about her students and finding common interests, having them learn each other’s names to greet each other daily and looking forward to seeing each other through a computer screen.

“While this year has been a challenge, it has also been very eye-opening,” Taylor Flick said. “I have truly enjoyed watching my students grow and work together to overcome these difficult times.”

It has helped that the daughter-mother kindergarten teaching duo has had each other to lean on, as the two spent hours collaborating on virtual lessons and activities.

Like teachers everywhere, they have had to reconfigure their classrooms to meet COVID-19 guidelines. They will use individual desks rather than tables — and they have measured the distance between them to keep at least six feet apart. They also will not be sharing supplies or materials, and will not be able to have things such as reading corners, circle time or lunch in the cafeteria. They have been preparing assignments so that their students can complete many of them on their Chromebooks rather than on paper.

Even though there have already been more than 100 days of virtual classes this year, Monday will feel much like a first day of school, even if the halls and classrooms won’t be as crowded. Gordon said staff should not be afraid to make adjustments if they find things are not working, but be sure to communicate any changes with parents.

“There’s going to be a level of excitement, especially from kids,” Gordon said, “and we want to make sure our staff can model those mitigation strategies, and to not be afraid to tweak some things based on what you see.”

Judy Flick said her goal was to get her students a strong foundation to love learning.

“No matter what the physical classroom may look like, it will feel like a warm and loving environment where students can take chances, make mistakes, explore and learn to their fullest potential while still being socially distanced and safe.”

Conner said her school is prepared to have students in the building again, helping them learn, helping them cope and helping them thrive.

“We miss your babies,” Conner said, “and whatever mode that they’re returning, if they’re remaining virtual or coming in the hybrid model, we’re going to take care of your babies. We’re going to keep them safe, but also keep them learning on the path that they need to be all right.”