BONLEE — On a Monday morning at Bonlee School, the return of students learning at desks instead of behind computer screens almost seems normal. That is, if you can get past the arts and crafts …
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BONLEE — On a Monday morning at Bonlee School, the return of students learning at desks instead of behind computer screens almost seems normal. That is, if you can get past the arts and crafts lining the walls of student self portraits decked in masks, neon yellow X’s and arrows taped along the hallways and masked students marching in a line six feet apart from one another.
It is, Bonlee Principal Kim Taylor says, “a new normal” under COVID-19.
“They want to follow the rules, they’re glad to be here,” Taylor said of her students. “Other than just changing your mindset, that’s not typically a human nature thing — wearing a mask, not being able to hug. We do virtual hugs, we’re making it work and it’s going so well. I think if you’re prepared and you have those things in place, then it becomes a normal school day.”
Bonlee School has around 315 students in grade K-8; nearly 100 returned to school last Monday for the first time in almost seven months. This follows the Chatham County Schools Board of Education’s Sept. 29 unanimous decision to send Extended Content Standard E.C. students, Pre-K students and K-2 students back to school under hybrid learning starting Oct. 19; for now, all other students will be in Plan C until Jan. 15.
Under the plan, a group of students attends in-person Monday and Tuesday while another attends virtually. Wednesday serves as a deep-cleaning day, and then the two groups swap on Thursday and Friday. As of Tuesday, there were 12 positive cases among CCS staff — one at Bonlee — and zero student cases, according the district’s COVID-19 tracking Google document.
While it’s a lot of change to get used to, it’s worth it to see students in person, said Jayme Edwards, who teaches a combination-class of 1st and 2nd graders at Bonlee. While reading a book about the adventures of Spookley the Square Pumpkin to the class, Edwards was sure to show the pictures to the seven students spaced around the room in front of her, as well as the seven others watching from Zoom.
“I’m gonna leave y’all with that,” Edwards says into her computer screen after finishing the reading. “Get ready for Thursday. All right, I’ll see you later. Bye, guys. I love you!”
A moment later she adds, “Go do Seesaw,” a virtual learning platform that houses assignments for students.
As she teaches, Edwards gently reminds one student to pull their mask above their nose; she adjusts her own pink mask a few times to ensure she is constantly setting the right example for her students.
“It’s been really, really smooth. The kids are super excited to be here,” Edwards told the News + Record in a break between classes. “I guess my biggest challenge I’d say is for students without internet, still making sure I’m reaching that one child. Personally I think my biggest challenge is not hugging them, but academically it’s probably just making sure that I’m reaching all kids and differentiating with them.”
At Bonlee, Principal Kim Taylor said about 10% of students have slow or no internet — about 30 students. Out of the students able to return, Taylor said there are about 40 students who have chosen not to return to in-person learning, opting instead to continue with completely remote learning. For those students who are doing remote learning without reliable internet access — whether completely or as part of their hybrid schedule — Taylor said teachers are making paper packets to send to students as well as calling them each day to check in on how they’re doing.
Every day, students are dropped off by parents or the buses starting at 7:30. Students in the parent-drop off must have their temperature checked and partake in a short symptom screening before getting out of their car. By that point, school employees have all already done health screenings too.
A new typical day looks like this: Students walk down the hallways marked by yellow tape, pick up their breakfast bags and eat them in their classrooms. While they eat at their desks — spaced six feet apart — they are not allowed to talk, at least not until their masks are covering their mouth and nose once more. For Edwards, then there’s a social-emotional lesson, a reading lesson, a mini lesson, lunch, recess, two separate math lessons (for 1st and for 2nd grade), specials (PE, music and art, “which are always a favorite”) and finally, social studies and science.
Through it all, students wear masks and remain at least six feet apart. Each student has a CCS lanyard with double-breakaway that attaches to their mask to keep it from falling even when it’s off for water breaks or eating. For Edwards, seeing her students in person makes keeping track of all the new rules worth it.
“Oh my gosh, my favorite part for sure is seeing the kids — just having them in my classroom. I mean, this is my passion. I love it,” she said. “I was absolutely sick to my stomach losing them. But just having them here face to face, even though I can’t touch them, I can only be but so close, just being able to see physically what they’re doing, what they’re capable of is absolutely my favorite part.”
One of Edwards’ students, Mary Catherine Walden, says she’s happy to be back at school and doesn’t mind wearing a mask too much. Her favorite part of school is specials — namely art — and she’s glad to see her friends and teachers again.
When asked how her first three days back to in-person school have been, Mary Catherine only gives a shy, “Good.” But the slight wrinkle of her eyes confirms the slogan on her mask: “There’s a smile under here.”
So far, the transition has felt smooth and doable, Taylor said. Since the first day, the school added more yellow X’s to stretch the full duration of the outdoor sidewalk, and they’ve had to replace some tape in the hallways. But it’s given Taylor confidence that they’ll be able to handle more students returning, whenever the BOE decides for all students to return under Plan B.
As more and more counties around Chatham send students back to school — more than 8,000 Wake County Students returned Monday and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools began a phased-in in-person approach Oct. 12 — it seems likely the board will move toward reopening, particularly if CCS does not see many COVID-19 cases. There is stark disagreement in the community about the best way to proceed; as many parents who are happy about the phased-in reopening are angry about it, either because they think the plan is moving too slowly or too quickly.
The BOE meets next for its regular meeting Nov. 9, when it plans to discuss a timeline for additional students to return under Plan B. The current phase of reopening affects just over 2,000 CCS students, but it also impacts teachers and the schools’ staff. While many proponents of school reopening have emphasized the fact that parents have a choice in whether to send their students back or not, teachers and staff do not have the same luxury. Many teachers like Edwards seem thrilled to be back with students, but for other teachers who feel unsafe, some feel choosing to speak openly could cost them their careers. Currently, teachers can only opt to work completely remotely with a medical doctor’s note.
Taylor told the News + Record that all of her staff have been eager about returning, and that none have had “questions or concerns” about the return. She’s immensely grateful for her staff, who she says makes the transition possible.
“They have just embraced the new world,” Taylor said. “The goal is to see the kids, to be safe and to move them academically from where we left off March 13. And it’s happening.”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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