On Monday, for the first time in more than a year, students walked the halls of middle and high schools in Jefferson County Public Schools.
Grades 6 through 12 are the last group to return in the district’s phased reopening. School buildings closed to in-person classes last March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“When I woke up this morning, I’m like ‘Dang, I’m really going to school,’” Waggener High School senior Maleek Kimble said, between bites of his lunch in the gym-turned-makeshift cafeteria at Waggener. The school is using the gym as a second cafeteria to allow the students to spread out more and maintain six feet of distance while eating.
Kimble said he’s glad to be back to in-person classes.
“It’s stressful sitting in front of a computer all day,” he said. “I feel like being with teachers it’s better, and even the class sizes are smaller, so it’s more focused.”
From a safe distance, Kimble’s friend and classmate Austin Chiles agreed: It’s easier to focus in the classroom setting.
“In here I can at least look to my right, look to my left and see someone that I can interact with, and talk to my teachers who really help me. They show me that they really care,” Chiles said.
But for both the seniors, the best part of being back in the school building was getting to see their friends and socialize, they said.
About 60% of JCPS students chose to return to in-person learning, while the other 40% of families chose to remain fully remote.
Those who chose the in-person option are on a rotating “hybrid” schedule. On Monday and Tuesday, students whose last names begin with the letters A-K are in person, while L-Z are remote. On Thursday and Friday, they swap. Wednesdays are remote for all students. This significantly reduces class sizes, with the goal of preventing the spread of COVID-19. All students and staff are required to wear masks as well, unless they have a medical waiver.
About half of Waggener students chose to return to the building, and class sizes Monday were very small. In one ninth grade English as a Second Language class, there were just four students.
The ninth graders got their introduction to in-person high school from Freshman Academy principal Tiffany Knowsley. Normally the whole grade would come together for an assembly. But they need to maintain social distancing because of the pandemic, so Knowsley used a video conferencing app to beam into all the ninth grade classrooms at once to explain expectations and school culture.
Waggener Principal Sarah Hitchings said she’s been thinking a lot about the ninth graders, many of whom started high school without ever seeing the campus.
“We really pride ourselves at Waggener at being a tight-knit community,” Hitchings said. “And it was hard to establish that virtually.”
Now that students are in the building, Hitchings hopes she can help them build a sense of belonging in the few weeks left.
“Content is kind of on the back-burner right now,” Hitchings said. “We’re just connecting, engaging and supporting kids. That is our priority for these last two months.”
At least some of the remaining school year will be spent on standardized testing, but it’s not clear yet how much. The U.S. Department of Education decided not to waive federal testing requirements, as it did in 2020.