Just two days into pre-planning, Sabrina Waters’ classroom already looks much different than it ever has.
During a normal year, Waters — a third-grade teacher at the Hall County School District’s McEver Arts Academy — likes to go with a flexible seating plan, allowing students to choose between conventional chairs, beanbags, floor cushions or whatever makes them most comfortable. Preparing for a school year amid a global pandemic has forced Waters to reconsider her typical room plan.
“You can’t do that anymore,” she said. “It’s a lot of difference.”
Teachers at all Hall County schools returned to their buildings this Monday for the start of a pre-planning period that they say is unlike any they have ever seen.
Educators are being encouraged to eliminate clutter in their classrooms, allowing for extra space for students to spread out, according to McEver Arts Academy Principal Brittney Bennett. And with visitation at all Hall schools extremely limited, teachers have had to haul away unnecessary furniture without the help of their friends and relatives, a process that Waters said has been “a lot harder than usual.”
But as the Aug. 24 start date for face-to-face classes in Hall schools approaches, physical room arrangement has been just one of the many considerations staff have had to juggle.
The Hall County School District has also instituted a variety of training exercises that all teachers are participating in to help learn the safest way to bring students back into the classroom. It starts with a program called 200% accountability, through which educators are taught best practices for procedures as basic as putting on cloth masks and face shields and ensuring their co-workers do the same.
The first 100% is about holding oneself accountable, and the second 100% is doing the same for one’s fellow teachers, according to Bennett.
“It’s all about holding each other accountable,” she said. “We do a lot with please and thank you. ‘Can you please push your mask up so you’re wearing it properly?’ And then someone would say ‘Yes, thank you for holding me accountable.’ Just practicing those pieces.”
Over the next three weeks, Hall teachers will also work on additional training in blended learning — in case students are forced to return to at-home virtual learning during the year — as well as mental health awareness training to ensure all staff and students are prepared for their return.
Sarah Lux, a support teacher for multiple grades at McEver Arts Academy, says she will be putting an extra emphasis on touching up her mental health awareness training during pre-planning as a member of the schools wellness team — a brand new committee to be instituted at all Hall schools in an effort to stay on top of any stress or anxiety issues teachers and students may be dealing with.
“There will be a leader and a team at each school looking at the wellness of our team members, our faculty and staff, and also our students,” Lux said. “Just the mental wellness and checking in with students, checking in with our peers, our buddies, and making sure everybody is getting what they need emotionally and mentally.”
And while news and understanding on the spread of COVID-19 seems to change by the day, teachers at McEver Arts Academy say that the Hall County School District has done everything possible to make them feel safe going forward.
“There’s a lot of unknown right now,” Waters said. “A lot of preparation, trying to get ready, making sure the classrooms are ready for the kids. But I’m confident that the county is putting in place everything they can put in place.”
In addition to accountability and mental health training, Hall County teachers will be required to wear protective face coverings while teaching. Hand sanitizer will be readily available for students and teachers in all school areas, and water fountains will be shut off to prevent the spread of germs. Cafeterias will also be operating at 50% to allow students to remain socially distanced while eating lunch.
Teachers for the Gainesville City School System began pre-planning last week, but will have a bit longer to prepare for the return of students to the classroom since they will be starting the school year with three weeks of remote instruction.