Education

On Wednesday, for the first time in a year and a half, Jefferson County Public Schools welcomed students back to full-capacity classrooms. But it’s not a return to a normal school year. With the delta variant of COVID-19 on the rise, students and staff came back to the classroom with mixed emotions.

Outside the Academy @ Shawnee principal Kym Rice literally rolled out the red carpet. Middle and high school students walked up the long red rug to an front entrance flanked with balloons in the school colors: blue and gold. They said hello to Rice and got a squirt of hand sanitizer from the school nurse before going inside. It was a big day for The Academy @ Shawnee—not just because it was the first day back, but also because it was the first time many students got to see the renovations the district did over the last year. The historic third floor has been restored after sitting vacant for decades.

“It’s like opening a present,” Rice said. 

Students Juantay Watters and Sircory Brookins walked (and danced) down the red carpet on their first day of school at The Academy @ Shawnee.J. Tyler Franklin | wfpl.org

Students Juantay Watters and Sircory Brookins walked (and danced) down the red carpet on their first day of school at The Academy @ Shawnee.

Shawnee junior Sircory Brookins could hardly contain himself and did a dance down the red carpet. 

“I’m feeling very, very, very excited,”  he said. “Everybody’s here. Everybody’s coming to school—it’s the first day. Got the balloons out, the red carpet, people standing on it. I’m feeling good.”

Shawnee senior Bianca Sanchez was a little less enthusiastic. She was already nervous about her final senior project, and she was worried about getting COVID-19. Like many of her classmates, she’s not vaccinated. But overall she said she’s glad to be back in the building.

“Because when I was at home it just wasn’t a great work environment,” she said. “That’s like my chill space—I’m supposed to be able to relax. But when I get here, it’s more like business and more strict.”

Sanchez said she plans to be vigilant about keeping her mask on. All students, staff and visitors are required to wear masks indoors under JCPS rules and a state mandate. That’s true for all grade levels. There are also other safety protocols.

At Wilder Elementary in the East End, first grade teacher Jessica Kaelin was teaching her students how to line up in a specific order. This will make contact tracing easier if a student tests positive.

J. Tyler Franklin | wfpl.org

Students at Wilder Elementary return to in-person education on the first day of school in Jefferson County.

In some classrooms, students were three feet apart. In others, they were closer. Students were side-by-side in the cafeteria, a departure from the six feet JCPS insisted on last spring.

No one seemed to have a problem wearing their mask. Wilder fourth grade student Carole’lia Norfleet said she doesn’t like wearing it, but she knows it’s important.

“Because it might be really, really bad for other people to get coronavirus, especially elders,” she said.

Carole’lia is happy to be back in school. Teachers said students are extra talkative, even for a first day. But there were some tears. In the cafeteria, one kindergartener couldn’t bring herself to eat her corndog and applesauce. She was anxious about the day’s schedule and asked instructional assistant Terri Phillips to estimate how long recess would last.

“How many fingers is twenty minutes?” she asked tearfully.

Phillips said meltdowns are pretty normal for kindergarteners on the first day of school.

“I can’t believe we only have one,” she said. “Especially these kids, because a lot of them didn’t even go to preschool last year because of the virus. So a lot of them, this is literally their first time here in a school.”

“So we are doing great, and she’s gonna be fine, aren’t ya?” Phillips said, turning to the student.

“Yeah,” the student warbled unconvincingly.

J. Tyler Franklin | wfpl.org

School superintendent Dr. Marty Polio greets students as they arrive for the first day of class at The Academy @ Shawnee.

The Wilder kindergartner wasn’t the only person in JCPS with concerns about the unknown on Wednesday. Back outside the Academy @ Shawnee, JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio said the delta variant has made the school year much less predictable than he originally expected. 

“It’s really hard to know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I think that one of the powers of having the masks on is hopefully we’ll be able to remain in school and not have to quarantine thousands of kids. But we’re going to have to be very flexible, as we have to have been the past 18 months, and just respond to whatever’s in front of us.”

That includes possible outbreaks of the coronavirus. By noon, Wilder Elementary and Bloom Elementary had each had a confirmed positive case, according to emails or texts sent to parents and obtained by WFPL. The district said they’ve alerted those who need to quarantine. 

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.