Students learn to follow safety measures to stay in school
The Sun’s education reporter visited Northside Elementary School and Woodford County Middle School with schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins Friday morning, Oct. 23, to see the safety precautions to reduce the risk of students and staff being exposed to the coronavirus.
Northside Elementary School teacher Nina Reynolds said her fifth-graders are following the rules and asking questions if they’re unsure about what they should do to stay safe. One of her students acknowledged wearing a mask can be “a little suffocating,” but a classmate said, “I’m thankful to be at school.” Reynolds said her fifth-graders are setting a really good example for younger students by wearing their masks and maintaining a social distance while walking in hallways. “We’ve had a really successful start to the school year,” said Northside Elementary School Principal Scott Hundley. Still, he acknowledged there was some apprehension among his staff at the start because they didn’t know what to expect. He credited the many safety precautions and protocols that were put in place for reducing the anxiety. Wearing masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus is one of the safety precautions. “I have not had one student that has refused to wear a mask,” said Hundley. As he spoke, a young student walked down the hallway outside the front office with a mask covering her nose and mouth. “The key,” said Hundley, “is that adults are modeling it. They’re in the building doing the right things.” Like teaching a child to read, “you’ve got to teach the behavior,” he added. Interim Principal Liz Kirk said her staff at Woodford County Middle School has also modeled positive behavior and there’s not been one issue with mask wearing. “I think they’re glad to be back at school. They’re willing to do what it takes,” she said. In addition to having one-way hallways and stairwells, WCMS students change classes at staggered times to reduce congestion, she explained. “I wouldn’t say anything is easy right now,” said Kirk. “I think we take it a day at a time and do what’s best for kids.” Northside Elementary students follow arrows in hallways so they are walking in the same direction. They also know to stand on stickers in the hall so they are socially distanced while waiting to use the restroom. “The goal is to try and create as much space as possible,” schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins said. “And that’s what all of our schools are doing. They’ve got their rooms set up that way, their cafeterias set up that way.” He described wearing a mask as the “biggest mitigation strategy,” and said students and staff are doing “a fantastic job” following that safety protocol to reduce the risk of virus exposure. Hawkins said district Health Coordinator Kelly Simpson and Woodford County Public Health Director Cassie Prather walked every building before in-person classes resumed on Sept. 28. They provided guidance on decisions like where to locate an isolation room in each school. Students, with symptoms or those who’ve been exposed to someone with the virus, are put in isolation until a parent or guardian can pick them up, Hawkins said. Taking student temperatures in the morning and at lunch has been easier than anticipated, Hundley said. Double-checking student temps provides an extra layer of assurance for teachers, he added. On the morning of the Sun’s visit, Northside Elementary had just put students and staff in quarantine (based on guidance from the health department) after an exposure to someone who came into the school for a student drop off Oct. 12 and later tested positive for the virus, Hawkins and Hundley said. That’s why schools are limiting visitors in their buildings, Hawkins explained. Five staff members, including a teacher and an instructional assistant, who were placed in quarantine have been able to work at home, Hundley said. With other students and staff being quarantined in the days since Woodford County schools returned to in-person classes, Hawkins said, “I don’t know if I would say its apprehension or anxiety as much as … it’s just our reality. So we’ll continue to do everything that we can in terms of our processes and procedures – knowing that we just don’t want it to start here. “Can you prevent it from coming in? No. Not 100 percent. That’s what we’ve said all along. There’s going to be cases.” A dashboard on Woodford County Public Schools’ website lists the number of students and teachers at each school who have tested positive for the virus or who have been placed in quarantine each day. Seating charts are being used in classrooms and cafeterias to assist the health department with contact tracing. Capacity in cafeterias has been reduced by extending lunchtimes; and grade levels – specifically students in a class – eat together at Northside, Hundley explained. Students are given their meal trays without standing in lunch lines, he said. “We want to stay in the building,” said Hundley of the many safety precautions. “So what do we have to do to make that happen? And we’re going to try to do it.” Lunch tables at WCMS and Woodford County High School have plastic dividers in order to increase seating capacity. Art, music and other special area teachers in the elementary schools travel to classrooms with their supplies in carts. Northside library media specialist Melinda Caldwell misses seeing students in the library, but she’s adjusted to being in other classrooms. She has everything she needs on her cart. “I love having the kids by myself,” Caldwell said. So she asks teachers to leave the classrooms because she wants to build relationships with students. Students have learned how to put a book on hold and she brings it to them when she visits their classroom. “It was amazing,” said Caldwell of the first day back in school. “… We’re just happy to be together and to see our kids.” Northside guidance counselor Sherry Basore does her class lessons virtually, but has a plastic shield on a table in her office so she can talk to students one-on-one while reducing her risk of exposure. Basore’s mother battled ovarian cancer last year, and while she’s now in remission, it could’ve been very problematic for Basore to be back in school with students if not for the many safety precautions. “The kids bring me so much energy and joy,” said Basore. She said students are processing a lot of different emotions as they returned to in-person instruction after learning at home since last March. “Because we put such an emphasis on building relationships with kids,” said Basore, “it helps. So we’ve done pretty well transitioning back” to in person. Choir students at WCMS went outside last Friday morning and were allowed to sing while wearing masks and being social distanced. Previously, they were only allowed to hum the music in the choir room, teacher Alyssa Sturgill said. “They’re way more excited than I am,” she said of students getting to sing. “But they’ve been excellent, though, about understanding what the (safety) guidelines are with … the performing arts.” While all the safety precautions being used in schools may sadden an outsider, Hawkins said it doesn’t make him sad. He knows the safety precautions have allowed students to get back in school. “It will sadden me if we ever have to shut down,” said Kirk. “That’s when I’ll be sad. Because I’ll feel like what else could we have done?”