Tuesday marked the first day back to in-person school for many students in the Gainesville district, who for the first three weeks took class remotely.
Kindergartners through second graders, sixth graders and ninth and 10th graders returned to face-to-face class on Tuesday, Sept. 8, and the remainder of the student body will return Thursday, per the Gainesville City School District’s return plan.
Originally the district intended to send all students back to school on Tuesday, however, school officials announced the phased-in approach. Gainesville Superintendent Jeremy Williams said his school system’s phased-in return will give students who are new to school buildings, like those who are moving from elementary to middle school, the chance to acclimate before all students return.
Those families who still do not feel comfortable physically returning to school will have the option to take class with Georgia Virtual Academy through at least December. The district’s percentage of families who have chosen the option is currently 16%, school officials said.
Hall County returned to its first face-to-face day on Monday, Aug. 24, with a phase-in approach that limited numbers according to last name, with all students returning for the first time Friday, Aug. 28. Hall has also given its families a virtual option.
Parents nervous but confident in district leadership
Shaquanus Woods, a mother of two Mundy Mill Academy students, said one of her daughters, 6-year-old Skylar Dailey, returned to the school building Tuesday, while the other, 8-year-old Sasha Dailey, will return Thursday.
Woods, a social worker who lives in the Mundy Mill neighborhood, said sending her youngest to first grade in a school building Tuesday morning was nerve-wracking to say the least.
She said she had “no complaints” about how the first three weeks of school online had gone, and she would have stuck with virtual learning if it was with the same staff. But because the system’s virtual option is with Georgia Virtual Academy, Woods said her family opted to return to school in person two days before the deadline to choose.
Now, even though she feels confident in the district’s COVID-19 precautions and her own education of her girls on the importance of hygiene and social distancing, Woods said she’s “very nervous” about how well other children, as well as her own, will abide by those health guidelines.
“But I figured it’s now or never,” she said. “My kids really miss the social interaction. They were craving the need to get back into the school setting and not feel so isolated, and also, I found solace in knowing the teachers that my kids would be having.”
Gainesville attorney Matt Parrish also has two daughters, one of whom, 11-year-old Violet Parrish, had her first day of in-person class at a new school building. She’d entered sixth grade at the start of this year.
Parrish said his youngest, Elle Parrish, a fifth grader at Enota Mutiple Intelligences Academy, will return to in-person class on Thursday.
Like Woods, Parrish said the first three weeks of online school went as smoothly as they could have, adding that he does not envy the staff who had to adapt to teaching children ages 5 or younger up to 18 through a computer screen. He said he has so far been “nothing but pleased” with the school system.
But, also like Woods, Parrish said he was nervous to send his sixth grader to school Tuesday, both because it is a transition period for Violet, but also because the family is concerned about the ongoing pandemic.
“We’ve been very, very serious about it (COVID-19), but in regard to the idea of whether she could have just continued staying home … we felt like there’s just so much to gain from being in school — the social part of it and getting used to it,” Parrish said.
He also said he feared that Violet’s introduction into middle school, as well as her transition to a new school building, would be complicated and his daughter falling behind if he chose to keep her in virtual school for the semester.
Parrish says he still worries about the chance of students and teachers everywhere falling ill with the virus, but for his family, the social, developmental and educational benefit could not be delayed any longer.
‘We’re excited to see them’
Teachers and administrators reported virtually no issues on Tuesday, aided by the reduced student volume, three weeks of introduction to students in virtual classes and education provided to students and staff about COVID-19 precautions.
Amanda Secunda, who teaches first grade at Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy, said that even during a pandemic, she found Tuesday to have been easier than “any other first day.”
“Even though we haven’t had them (the students) in the classroom, we have had experiences with them and gotten to see a little bit of their personalities, as well as how they learn and learning more about them that way, than a traditional first day where you’re meeting those kids for the first time,” Secunda said.
Another of the reasons Williams has listed for a phased-in approach to school is the extra staff that would be available to make portions of the day, like morning drop-offs, move along more smoothly. Secunda said that idea worked.
The first grade teacher said her students also had done well to adhere to the mask guidelines, though classes did take brief mask breaks, when students could spread out and breathe outside their masks. She said the largest challenges came at recess, where students were required to stay in a certain zone with their class, and in the hallways, where they were expected to social distance as well.
“(Recess) was really hard for some of the kids to comprehend, ‘I can see my friend from last year, but I can’t go play with them,’” she said. “And that was hard to watch them, too.”
Overall, though, Secunda said it’s just nice to see the students in person.
“It made the school feel like it had life again,” she said.
At Gainesville High School, Principal Jamie Green said school had been moving along swimmingly. Green said the vast majority of the ninth and 10th grade students who returned had come to school wearing masks, and those who had not were given one immediately.
“I think it’s gone really well,” he said. “Students are excited to be here, and we’re excited to see them. I think everyone’s just kind of got along with it and got through the day. If we weren’t all socially distanced and we weren’t all wearing masks, it would just look like a great, normal first day of school.”
Green said the students seem to understand the reason and importance for the district’s precautionary measures. And, he added, while the first day of school can be especially jarring for new freshmen, the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t seemed to challenge what he called a “great ninth grade team” of staff, who made the transition to in-person school a breeze on Tuesday.
“They know how to communicate with the students, how to help them through this transition, and so adding the requirement to wear a mask and adding the requirement just to keep a little bit more space is not too much on top of what they already do,” Green said. “They’ve done an amazing job.”
Superintendent: We’re taking it slow and steady
Superintendent Williams told The Times that he always makes the rounds to check in on how the first day of school is going, though Tuesday he called it the “second first day of school.” Tuesday, he said, had a “refreshing vibe.”
“It took a while to get here, but now that it’s here, everybody’s excited to not just have their kids engage between the students and the teachers, but I know that our teachers and all of our employees are glad to see kids back in the buildings,” he said. “It’s definitely unlike any other first face-to-face day, because we started three weeks ago.”
Williams echoed Woods, noting that the benefit to having spent three weeks online before in-person school is that the students already know their teachers. Now all that’s left to figure out is the logistics, including COVID-19 protocols, classroom locations and schedules.
He also noted some observations that this year’s first day back will be markedly different came early in the day.
The superintendent said buses averaged seven to 10 students on their way into school Tuesday, and he said though more students will come back Thursday, he expects school bus ridership to remain lower than normal, both because of the number of students who will attend virtual school and an increase in parents driving their students to class.
Williams said he didn’t feel as though students would be playing catch-up after the three weeks of virtual learning, as he felt the quality and content of the curriculum had been sufficient. He said any learning gaps have been identified in the first few weeks, and now a return to in-person lessons will be the chance to work through them.
Williams also noted the precautions the district will be taking to protect students and staff from COVID-19, including the system’s mask mandate for students and staff; hand sanitizing stations on buses, at school entrances and in classrooms; meals being held in classrooms; and the temporary closure of playgrounds.
“Our mindset was let’s start with more things closed off and open them up as we become more successful,” he said.
We know credible local information is crucial now more than ever. As many Gainesville students returned to school buildings, Digital Editor Thomas Hartwell spoke with Gainesville school officials and parents about how the first day in person went for those returning. If you're interested in sharing your own perspective on the school year, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. To our subscribers, thank you for your support; it helps us provide the journalism you've come to trust. For those interested in becoming part of our mission to provide fair, unbiased coverage of our community, please consider these two options.
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