All three school systems in Catawba County are preparing for more elementary students in classrooms. For some students and teachers, the shift back to in-person learning starts Tuesday.
The return of students was made possible when N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper announced in September that elementary schools across the state could begin more face-to-face learning in school buildings.
Catawba County Schools
Catawba County Schools will welcome second-graders and third-graders back to school buildings on Tuesday.
“We’re really excited to have our students coming back,” said Shelly Black, elementary director of Catawba County Schools (CCS). She added that safety precautions that have been in place since the beginning of the school year will remain in effect.
This includes wearing masks, regularly sanitizing surfaces, washing hands, and socially distancing. “There is tape on the floors of our elementary schools to help students keep six feet apart. We follow the symptom question guidelines, as well,” Black explained. “We ask all students, staff, anyone that enters the building these questions and take their temperature every single day.”
Lathan Fowler, principal at Sherrills Ford Elementary School, said the feedback he’s heard from teachers, parents, and students about how the school year is going is the same across the board. “I think the general consensus is that everybody has been glad to be back in school,” he said. “As educators, we work in this field to be with the kids, so it’s a breath of fresh air to have people back in the building.”
Fowler added that students have followed safety precautions with ease. “Our students have been fabulous — there haven’t been any disruptions because of the masks or anything like that. They’ve done a fantastic job, and I think they’re just happy to be here,” he said.
CCS gave parents the option to either send their second-grade and third-grade students back to school Monday-Thursday or to continue virtual learning. “The district approach has been to let families make those decisions based on their needs, because everyone is experiencing this a little different,” Fowler explained.
“The face-to-face interaction is very important, but our students learning virtually are getting that, as well,” Black said. “(The virtual teachers) are having those interactions and making it work for them, and it’s really exciting to see that in action.”
Fowler agreed. “It’s different. I walk into the teacher’s classroom and she’s talking with the kids but none of them are there with her. That’s different for us, but the kids are still learning and actively participating,” he said. “We can tell they’ve been excited and engaged in school even if it’s been virtual.”
He added that the success of this school year comes from dedicated teachers. “Teachers have been working seven days a week to get this to work, and they’ve done a great job,” he said.
“The teachers are the real heroes in all of this,” Black admitted. “They have accepted and risen to the challenge, and are making amazing things happen in their classrooms.”
Kindergarten and first-grade Catawba County Schools students have already been attending in-person classes Monday-Thursday. The school system plans to offer face-to-face instruction Monday-Thursday for fourth-grade and fifth-grade students beginning Nov. 30.
Hickory Public Schools
During the Sept. 28 Hickory Public Schools Board of Education meeting, members voted to continue with the Plan B option for all students until the end of the fall semester on Dec. 18. This option includes a mix of in-class instruction and remote learning.
Although some admit the transition to remote learning was challenging, Hickory teachers have still been able to make connections with their students and help them succeed.
“During these uncertain times, we as staff have learned to lean on and learn from each other despite the challenging times that we face,” said Calandra Davis, principal of Jenkins Elementary School. “We have cried together, laughed together, and expressed frustration to each other as the norms have shifted seemingly at a moment’s notice.
“Still, throughout this unique experience, we have focused on the love we have for our students, putting their best interests first. And we have relied upon the inner strength that we draw from one another,” she continued. “We understand growth cannot occur without struggle and have become ever cognizant that we are modeling this behavior for our students.”
Stephanie Ashley, first-grade teacher at Southwest Primary School, said she didn’t expect to enjoy remote learning as much as she does — let alone how well her students would perform.
“I am able to meet with my students in small groups throughout the day to meet their individual needs. The parents are more involved because they are able to see what their child is learning in class and are then able to help them at home more effectively,” Ashley explained. “Some students who struggle to pay attention in a regular classroom, due to the many distractions, are thriving with virtual learning.”
"I went into this year with a heavy heart because it was so scary to face the unknown,” said Lora Snider, third-grade teacher at Longview Elementary School. “One of the most important parts of teaching is building a relationship with your students and to have that done over a computer seemed daunting.”
Snider quickly realized the gravity of remote learning. “I have seen their pets, their walls, their siblings, and all of their faces,” she said. “(Parents) already trust us with their children each year and now they trust us in their sanctuaries. It has been a blessing to be ‘let in’ and be included.”
Snider said she hopes that she has made a difference in her students' lives. “What I want them to remember is the year when life was turned upside down and truly remember that a good part of it was being in my classroom, because one of the best parts for me was having them in mine,” she said.
Newton-Conover City Schools
The Newton-Conover City School Board voted to move forward with developing re-entry plans for elementary school students on Sept. 21.
The first phase of re-entry began with giving kindergarten students the option to return to in-person learning four days a week, or remain on the Plan B option, which is a mix of classroom and virtual learning.
On Oct. 20, kindergarten students will either be in the classroom four days per week or do remote learning five days a week. The option of two days of remote learning and two days of classroom instruction will be eliminated Tuesday for kindergarteners.
Also on Oct. 20, first-graders, second-graders and third-graders can begin returning for in-person learning four days per week, as well. Friday will be a remote-learning day for all students.
The tentative plan is for fourth-graders and fifth-graders to return to the classroom four days a week on Nov. 2. If families are not ready for their student to return to the school building, they can opt for remote learning.
Emily Willis is a general assignment and education reporter at the Hickory Daily Record.
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