October 26, 2021

BACK TO SCHOOL: First day at Newton schools is ‘a time to connect’

Students return to their classrooms for in-person learning

Principal Jim Gilbert walked into his office about 20 minutes before students arrived for the first day of school Monday morning at Aurora Heights Elementary. It wasn’t long before Gilbert retreated from his corner in the administration office to greet new and returning students at the front entrance.

It’s an all-day affair, he said. Rather than spending his day behind a computer screen, Gilbert likes to pop in to classrooms and get acquainted with the kids.

“First days, for me, are a time to connect,” he said. “I’m not in my office hardly any of the day, and it’s just about going classroom to classroom making sure I’m visible, making sure kids put my name with a face. They’ll hear me every day on the morning announcements, and for some they’ve never seen me before.”

Gilbert and staff wore matching shirts for the first day of school; the gray Ts were emblazoned with the phrase Be Kind Cardinals. The elementary school’s parent-teacher association also provided each student with a “school spirit day” shirt, which Gilbert said will be encouraged to be worn every Wednesday.

“It just kind of brings that sense of community, so we’re looking forward to that,” he said. “We’ve always done that for staff, and all the schools do that. Typically on whatever day it is you wear your staff shirt. Since last year was last year we thought we’d extend that to students and we think that will be a lot of fun.”

Compared to the previous school year’s first day, the start to the 2021-22 school year looks and feels remarkably different. Students and teachers at Aurora Heights were not required to wear masks, but many still chose to do so. Plastic shields are still installed by the front desk of the administration office.

A paper-made sign posted in the front entrance of Aurora Heights had the word “required” whited out and replaced with “recommended,” signifying the school district’s decision to uphold state laws but also acknowledging the direction from public health officials who are still battling a pandemic.

Access to the vaccine has likely provided some level of comfort for faculty. Gilbert said it’s a relief to have people come back to school and feel more at ease.

“There’s still the COVID and there are still the variants going around,” he said. “I think most people are vaccinated now and we feel there’s a lot more protection from a staff standpoint. Kids, however … there’s not yet a vaccination that’s been approved for them. But hopefully that’s going to come soon.”

The return to classrooms this year also means an end to remote learning.

“It’s hard to know, if you’re not a teacher, how difficult remote learning is — and for parents, as well,” Gilbert said. “Because then you had to have somebody at home to facilitate the whole technology piece. I don’t think human beings were made to stay at home and not go to school when it comes time to be educated.”

As a result, Gilbert expects the social-emotional health of students will be much improved this year. Kids can work with each other to learn and socialize and reinforce one another again. Gilbert said it’s “a whole different ball game” having in-person classes compared to remote learning.

“Our teachers are so happy to be in person,” Gilbert said. “There’s been a lot of preparations on their parts to get ready for the first day of school and obviously meet these kids where they’re at, because we know there will be some lagging in learning — because not everyone has had a full year of school.”

Lois Holmes, a first-grade teacher at Aurora Heights, spent the past week preparing her classroom and getting to know her students and their families at a back-to-school event. By all accounts, she was ready to begin a new school year. One she hopes will be better than the year before.

“It seems a little more normal,” Holmes said of the first day of classes. “Last year we started out where Mondays were going to be remote. Then we had everything going on with COVID and we weren’t sure if we were going to be online or in-person. I’m excited it feels more like a normal first day.”

Holmes is relieved she and her students will not be learning remotely. By having in-person classes, it will be easier to form group or partner activities and facilitate more one-on-one instruction. From what she saw during back-to-school night festivities, students are excited to be coming back to classrooms.

“We’re all hoping we can stay in school and that it will be a normal year,” Holmes said. “(I’m) hoping it gets back to normal and we can kind of go about the way we’ve always gone. Just hoping the kids will learn all kinds of things being here.”

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

Christopher Braunschweig

Reporter with a strong penchant for community journalism.