Todd Schuster couldn’t help but laugh when he glanced at the sheet of paper he was going to use to read the morning announcements on the first day of school. The principal of Woodrow Wilson Elementary School pointed directly above the Tuesday, Sept. 8, announcement to another from six months ago.
It was dated March 12. Shortly after, the governor closed several businesses and all public schools in the state — including Newton Community School District — because of COVID-19. The timing was abrupt and was thought, at first, to be only temporary. However, students did not properly finish the 2019-20 school year.
“It’s been a long ‘spring break’ for us,” Schuster quipped from behind a face shield. Apart from some interactions in continuous learning sessions held online or a wave and “hello” from teachers in a socially distanced parade in late-March, students have not seen their educators in person for almost half a year.
After a brief delay from the derecho cleanup, Newton students finally reunited with teachers, albeit in a much different way. Every person in the school, including students, are required to wear their masks or other face covering. Upon entering classrooms, young learners must first wash their hands with sanitizer.
In Woodrow Wilson Elementary, small dots line the floor in the hallways, each one is set a few feet or so apart. This lets kids know where to stand when they leave their classrooms. Schuster also said timings and schedules were shifted around, and assigned seats have become more prevalent.
The building is also full of signage promoting sanitary practices — “Spread kindness not germs” or “Air fives not high fives.” Students have been encouraged to bring water bottles to class since the water fountains have been placed out of order; cups, too, have been placed over the spigot to stop usage.
“It’s pretty in-depth, pretty intense,” Schuster said, noting the school district as a whole has taken these precautions to reduce risk of spread and maintain a strong level of contact tracing. “But we’re going to give a lot of grace and mercy, and hopefully accept a lot of grace and mercy, as well.”
Since the school closures, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has made it mandatory for schools to primarily provide in-person learning. Newton has opted for four days of in-person and one day of remote learning. Coupled with the hygienic practices, this year has plenty of new challenges for not only teachers, but students as well.
For the past few weeks, Schuster felt “anxious” and “apprehensive” about returning to school. But with 30 minutes until doors opened on the first day, those feelings morphed into excitement. Schuster was on board to see the kids again and have teachers “do what they do best,” to move forward.
“I don’t like the unknown, and there was so much unknown. There are still unknowns, but I’m to the point where we just need to have kids here,” Schuster said. “What I’m looking forward to today is seeing the kids, seeing all 225 … This is one of the best days of the school year.”
In true 2020 fashion, the first day of school kicked off with a rainy and chilly forecast. Several parents — at least at Woodrow Wilson Elementary — dropped off their children by the main entrance. Parents of kindergarteners were disappointed they couldn’t walk their kids to class this year.
Because of safety reasons and to limit any possible risk of spread, parents of all grades were not allowed inside Newton campuses. Goodbye hugs were done outside the building. Several teachers were on standby to escort children to their classrooms at Woodrow Wilson, ensuring they would not get lost.
Trisca Mick, principal of Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, said every start to the school year under normal circumstances has its fair share of anticipation and build up. Considering what faculty has gone through with the pandemic and the massive amount of prep work over the summer, that anticipation was greater.
“When that day finally comes and it happens, it is just such a relief,” Mick said. “Getting the kids back in the building, that’s what we do. That’s what we teachers live for. To finally have the building back to life with the kids and starting all the new protocols, it was a huge relief just to get going.”
Last year, there were a handful of Thomas Jefferson Elementary School teachers that greeted their children with high fives and hugs. Of course, none were wearing masks back then either. With the rain canceling any sort of outside greeting traditions on the playground, kids needed get inside the building fast.
Indeed, the morning didn’t go the way Mick had hoped. Other than that, the start of the new school year went OK; every student got where they were supposed to be, and teachers were able to start the day. As a whole, Mick said the first day went “extremely well,” all things considered.
“We were prepared for the worst and we hoped for the best, and I feel it definitely much more towards the best side,” Mick said, adding it wasn’t all perfect. “We’re dealing with a lot of technology and things we’ve never done before. People are trying to get connected for the first time. We had some bumps.”
Mick regularly checked on teachers for issues. Remote learners were “pretty successful” getting logged in and joining their classrooms electronically. Are there some wrinkles that need ironed out? Sure. But Mick is optimistic. Students in the building were behaving themselves while wearing their masks, too.
Knowing that having students wear masks all day is a tough ask, schools allowed for regular mask breaks. Staff were nervous the masks would pose some problems on the first day. But Mick said the kids “did tremendous” and were doing “great” wearing their masks, following directions and being patient.
“I saw them helping each other and working independently,” she said. “I was very pleased with what I saw today. I think the kids just seemed very excited to be back in school around their friends. It’s such a good feeling to be back to school, to have all the kids back and to be in our ‘norm’ again.”
Teachers are built to learn, Mick added; without students, they feel lost. Although it was “lovely” to have everybody back, staff are still nervous. They also know operations may not go as smoothly as they’d like, at first. But the schools are ready to partner with the families of the community to get things moving.
Mick told her staff to not be so hard themselves. Teachers are going to be in school, work hard and make sure their students feel safe, in addition to learning and having fun. It’s not going to look like it always has, Mick said, and “that’s OK.” Schools now have to establish their new normal. At least the first day’s over.
“It was a big day — a big day,” Mick said.
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or firstname.lastname@example.org