Diana Osorio Blankenship has grown accustomed to the back-to-school routine over the years, but Monday’s first day of school for the Hall County School District was a bit of an exception.
Half of Hall County’s in-person students returned to classrooms Monday morning for the district’s hybrid reopening, and while the Flowery Branch mother of five was initially wary of the unorthodox schedule, she said communication from the school district gave her confidence that it was the safest way to go about things.
By Monday morning, Osorio Blankenship said she felt ready for in-person schooling to begin again.
“Things are up here in Hall County,” she said. “I’ve got boys in football and karate, and swim practice is about to take off. If they can do all those activities, we’re good for school.”
Osorio Blankenship was not alone in trusting the school district’s handling of the return to classes. Marsha Black, who has a daughter attending East Hall High School, wrote via email early on Monday morning that she was impressed by the traffic directing and mask wearing of school employees at the morning drop-off today.
“They were all wearing masks and taking each child’s temperature,” she wrote. “I was very pleased and felt very safe for my daughter to be back in school.”
As the day wore on, Shad Dabney, a senior at Cherokee Bluff High School, said teachers and administrators kept up the commitment to the new protocols.
Dabney said school staff members were keeping careful track of who students were sitting next to in each class, even noting when they use the bathroom to make contact tracing easier in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Class changes were quicker than usual, with less time to socialize, and Dabney said everyone was staying to the right and keeping their masks on while in the hallway.
“There wasn’t a lot of standing around,” he said. “It was a lot of moving and trying to get to your next class on time. It was good.”
As the school year starts to get underway, district officials said the precautionary protocols implemented have been a success so far.
“We’re feeling really good about where we are,” said district spokesman Stan Lewis. “We’ve got students socially distancing in the lunchroom line in our elementary schools. We’ve got kids following directional arrows that are directing one-way traffic down hallways. We’ve got students that are socially distanced in classrooms, socially distanced in the hallways. I’m seeing really good things.”
Lewis said he didn’t have any official numbers on how many students wore masks in school buildings but based on his time spent in multiple schools, he said the mask wearing seems “100% across the board.”
“I think we’ve done a very good job explaining to folks that that’s going to be the expectation,” he said. “Our students, they will do the right thing, and they’ll work with us on this. I think parents will support us as well.”
Jonathan Edwards, principal of Johnson High School, had much the same to say, adding that the small number of students who arrived without masks were given one immediately.
Edwards said his staff has prioritized teaching the school’s implemented safety protocols to students, taking a “slow and deliberate” approach and providing regular intercom announcements to remind students of the importance of social distancing and mask wearing. He said the district’s hybrid reopening plan has been instrumental in making the teaching of precautionary procedures as easy and effective as possible.
“With that reduced amount of students in the building, it allows us to be able to give more attention and to evaluate more thoroughly what’s going on in the hallway and be able to instruct those kids,” Edwards said. “Our teachers are able to have that smaller, closer group, so those conversations are a lot stronger in terms of communicating what those safety measures are. And they’re able to check in and ask for students’ understanding, to check their understanding on it, rather than sometimes if you have that large group, some things may get missed or things like that.”
Marianne Durieux, an ESOL teacher at Martin Technology Academy of Math and Science, said even Hall County’s youngest students have adapted well to new safety procedures. Teachers have had access to age-appropriate instructional videos on handwashing and have been advising students to walk through hallways with “Frankenstein arms” out in front of them to ensure there is space between students.
Durieux said early in the day she was most concerned about cafeteria traffic, but her initial experience with lunch time was a positive one.
“I was in there this morning when kindergarten was in there, and it really ran smoothly,” she said. “I think it really helps we were at half capacity in our building, so there’s less bodies. But it really, really ran smoothly. I do think having markers that are 6 feet apart on the floor really kind of helped with that.”
Durieux also said that the extra week of pre-planning provided by the district this year and the hybrid reopening cutting down on the number of students in school buildings, were instrumental in making students’ return to schools a back a success.