While on mask duty on the first day of school, Brownstown Central High School Principal Joe Sheffer was approached by a student.
The student told Sheffer he had dirt on his mask. Sheffer then took off his mask, which had the Indiana University logo on the front.
"He got me," Sheffer said. "I took a deep breath and I was like, ‘You know? It’s going to be OK.’"
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At that moment, he realized starting the 2020-21 school year during the COVID-19 pandemic was going to be better than he anticipated.
All students who chose the traditional option of learning came in with masks on the first day of school Aug. 7. Students also could choose virtual learning, and as of Tuesday, Superintendent Tim Taylor said 17.2% of the corporation’s students are doing that.
"I think the kids are excited to be there. They truly want to be there," Sheffer said of the positive start to the school year. "We have had zero issues on anything. They’ve done a great job."
Positivity was a theme during Tuesday night’s board of trustees meeting at the administration office when Sheffer and the other two building principals gave reports.
Brownstown Elementary School Principal Chrystal Street said she and new Assistant Principal Marty Young anticipating questions they would be asked by staff members resulted in a great start.
Her three goals are keeping everybody in the building safe, minimizing the number of people being sent home and instruction.
Students having to wear face masks when entering and leaving the school building and when they can’t maintain social distancing has created a huge hurdle, Street said.
"When I walk into teachers’ classrooms, instruction is muffled very much," she said. "When kids are talking, it’s very hard to understand them, but I told the teachers that it’s kind of wearing mask stamina. We have to build up the kids. They are probably not going to be able to wear it first day all day all the time, and we’ve got to work our way up to that."
Teachers are giving students mask breaks, which allows them to remove their face covering.
"I would say probably 99% of our kids come in with their own masks, so they are doing a really nice job," Street said.
To help minimize the number of kids going home because they feel sick or have virus symptoms, Young rearranged classrooms so students could be placed in pods, or groups of five or less. Students travel in their pod to the restroom, recess and cafeteria. The pods will rotate every two weeks.
"So if one of the kids in the pod gets COVID, then just that pod goes home," Street said. "We received some feedback from the kids. It’s not nearly as bad as what they thought it would be. They get to make friends with people they never thought they could be friends with … so that’s a good positive."
Street said the students like being back in school.
"It’s not what they thought it would be, so that’s our goal," she said. "I know that we can get to that instruction piece and move forward."
Street praised the staff, too.
"They came in with a lot of things they didn’t know the answer to, and it was tough, and it’s still tough," she said. "This is the hardest thing that we’ve ever had to do, but they are doing a great job, so kudos to our teachers. We’re going to really have a good year, so we’re looking forward to it."
Brownstown Central Middle School Principal Doug McClure said students caught onto the revised procedures and protocols quickly.
"With each passing day, we are settling into our new routines, and they are starting to come second nature already to our kids," he said.
There are rules for every aspect of the school day, including entering the building, classrooms, cafeteria, passing periods, one-way directional flow, scheduled locker visits, restroom capacity, water bottle fill stations and dismissal.
"We have tried meticulously to remove any potential for uncertainty as it pertains to our educational day, our movement around the building and our interactions with one another," McClure said. "I am really very pleased with the effort and attention that not only the staff has made but the students have also given as we have opened school."
If absences do come, McClure said it’s not for a lack of following established guidelines but because of the highly contagious virus. He also said plans are in place in the event of an abrupt school closure like the spring.
As of Tuesday, three students and one staff member were under quarantine, he said.
Athletics have been pushed back to Sept. 1 at the elementary and middle schools, but fall sports signups are underway at the middle school.
"We are hopeful that our athletic season will be able to take off," McClure said. "I know the kids are ready to compete."
Also, while field trips are suspended for at least the first trimester, McClure said Taylor gave the go-ahead to begin planning for the Washington, D.C., trip scheduled for May 2021. A parent meeting was supposed to be Tuesday night, but McClure opted to cancel it and instead posted the PowerPoint presentation on the school’s website for students and parents to view.
In his 25 years in education, McClure said he can’t remember a time when kids were more excited to be back together at school than now.
"It’s really ingratiating to see kids come together and want to be together after 147 days absence, which was the last time they saw each other in our building March 13," he said. "It has been really, really neat to see."
Sheffer said with nearly 100 virtual students, 44 doing school to work and 19 taking vocational classes, there are many times during the school day when less than 375 students are in the building.
"If you see our lunches and our hallways, there’s just not much foot traffic in our building," he said.
The day before school started, he said desks were taken out of every classroom so the remaining desks could be 6 feet apart. He also said doors are propped open, signage about face masks and social distancing are placed around the building, there are three lunch periods with a maximum capacity of 150 each and students are given mask breaks.
Also, the Wednesday clubs schedule has been reconfigured so students aren’t in close contact for more than 15 minutes. Sheffer said clubs will meet at the end of the school day or virtually.
"The plan is whenever we can get back to the true normal to continue the clubs, but we wanted to eliminate some contact tracing," he said.
Taylor thanked the principals, staff, students and parents for their efforts in helping school reopen safely.
"Everybody has been going hard," he said. "I appreciate everything everyone is doing. I appreciate all of you for your support as we move forward. It’s ever-changing, but we want to keep kids in traditional school for as long as we can. We may surprise ourselves. We want to keep athletics going. We want as much normalcy as we can have for our kids. That’s our plan, and we’re sticking to it."