Here's How Back To School Might Look In The New Normal

Jul 27, 2020
Originally published on July 27, 2020 4:54 pm

The students are met at the school door with a thermometer and a health quiz, answering questions like "Are you feeling sick today?"

Once they pass this quiz, the students in this summer enrichment program outside St. Louis proceed to folding chairs spread 10 feet apart across the gymnasium to eat breakfast alone.

Eating so far from friends has been "not great" for Jada Randle. "It's boring. You just have to sit away from people," said the 10-year-old.

Jennings School District, which educates about 2,500 students just north of St. Louis, is using this summer program to test an in-person school model that it will roll out for the entire district next month. The program highlights the challenges that lie ahead for schools as they try to safely reopen amid a raging pandemic.

Two groups of a few dozen students, in grades five through 12, come on alternating days for enrichment programs that include computer coding, building design and chess. Jennings is one of the first public school districts in the region to welcome any students and staff back into its buildings on a regular basis, even as neighboring districts cancel plans to open their schools in the fall.

When school resumes in earnest on Aug. 24, Jennings will offer this alternating-day schedule along with a fully online version, a combination that administrators hope will keep capacity at just 25%.

"It's really going well," said Vernice Hicks-Prophet, who oversees elementary schools for the district. "We're working this program so we can get all of the kinks out of it when students return in August."

Students enrolled in the summer enrichment program eat breakfast while social distancing in the gymnasium.
Ryan Delaney / St. Louis Public Radio

Teachers nationwide and in St. Louis have voiced their concerns about keeping themselves and their students healthy. This comes as pressure mounts from government leaders to reopen schools and as coronavirus cases spike around the United States. The union representing teachers in Jennings is against reopening for in-person classes.

Business teacher Marc Reid volunteered to come back to school and teach: "Since we have a lot of safeguards in place, it made me feel very comfortable in doing so." Tables in his computer lab were spread as far apart as possible, with just one computer on each table.

Sometimes it's hard to hear students' questions when their voices are muffled by their masks, he said.

Students are instructed to wear masks except for sips of water from their own cups or bottles. If they show up barefaced, they are supplied a mask. Teachers are also expected to wear masks, though one wasn't. Students mostly complied with the rule, though masks didn't always stay on perfectly over their noses and mouths; masks are too hot, several students said.

"Sometimes I pull it down to scratch my face and forget to pull it back up," said 13-year-old Curtis Grisby.

Business teacher Marc Reid spaced out tables in the classroom he's teaching in this summer. He said it can be hard to hear his students when they're spread out and talking through masks.
Ryan Delaney / St. Louis Public Radio

Curtis, who's about to start his freshman year of high school, said he mostly doesn't mind the mask and distancing rules: "It's just a new experience." But he also predicted that his classmates will not follow every rule, especially when changing classes.

In regard to mask and distancing infractions, Superintendent Art McCoy said it will take time to develop habits around the protocols.

"We're not expecting perfect. That's why we're starting early," he said, adding that the goal will be to balance enforcement and maintaining a positive learning environment, all while keeping the number of COVID-19 cases as low as possible.

When NPR visited, a custodian frequently lapped the hallways with a spray bottle of disinfectant; hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes were scattered around rooms; and teachers told students to sanitize their hands before coming into a classroom.

Students in the summer chess program are required to wear masks in class and have the option to wear gloves.
Ryan Delaney / St. Louis Public Radio

The district still has some work to do before reopening — while chairs were spaced far apart for eating, not all classrooms were set up for kids to be separated by at least 6 feet.

Jada, the 10-year-old student, said she's worried about more crowded schools too. And as a typical kid, she's not exactly excited about being back in school. But after being stuck inside since March, she "just wanted to get out of the house."

Copyright 2020 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So if schools decide to reopen to students in a few weeks, there are going to be some changes. Health precautions will be a priority. That means masks, frequent handwashing, also social distancing in the hallways. A summer school program in Missouri offers a peek at how this could work. St. Louis Public Radio's Ryan Delaney donned a mask and checked it out.

RYAN DELANEY, BYLINE: As students arrive at the school door, they're met with their first quiz of the day.

CHARDIAL SAMUEL: Have you experienced any of these in the last 24 hours?

DELANEY: Medical social worker Chardial Samuel asks how they're feeling. Daily health screenings will be a part of any in-person school day this fall.

SAMUEL: 97.7.

DELANEY: The beat of a digital thermometer was about the loudest thing in the school gym. Ten-year-old Jada Randle and the other kids are spaced so far apart in folding chairs to eat their breakfast that they don't talk much.

JADA RANDLE: Well, it's boring. You just got to sit, like, away from people.

DELANEY: Jada is among a few dozen kids who are coming to this school in a suburb north of St. Louis every other day. Jennings school administrator Vernice Hicks-Prophet says they're here to test out a return to the classroom.

VERNICE HICKS-PROPHET: As you see, it's going pretty - really well. It's really going well.

DELANEY: The Jennings district will offer families a choice of virtual school or an option that allows them to come to class a few alternating days a week. The district hopes this combination will keep buildings only a quarter full. With COVID-19 cases rising in the region, some neighboring school systems have opted to keep their schools closed. That's what teachers unions are calling for. But computer science teacher Marc Reid willingly volunteered to return to a classroom.

MARC REID: Since we have a lot of safeguards in place, it made me feel very comfortable in doing so.

DELANEY: Tables in his room are spaced out with just one computer each. He has to remind himself to keep away from students.

REID: But it's becoming difficult to hear them with a mask.

DELANEY: Across the hall...

LAWRENCE PROGRAIS III: Did everybody sanitize?

DELANEY: ...Shop teacher Lawrence Prograis III (ph) asks about clean hands. Co-teacher Albie Mitchell reminds them to pull their masks up.

ALBIE MITCHELL: Is everybody wearing their mask correctly?

DELANEY: No nostrils showing, he reminds them. This trial run shows in part how hard it will be to strictly enforce the social distancing and health rules recommended for schools to reopen. Students, even a teacher, weren't always great about keeping their masks on right or keeping their distance. The masks are too hot, a few kids said. Curtis Grisby, who's 13, says he doesn't mind the mask and distancing.

CURTIS GRISBY: But it's just a new experience for everybody here. And I feel like we can adjust to it as time goes on.

DELANEY: The kids say they have to wash their hands five, even 10 times a day. A custodian roams the hall with spray cleaner. Hicks-Prophet, the administrator, says it's all a process.

HICKS-PROPHET: This is something that we have to work with and make it work for us. So we're working this program and so we can get all the kinks out of it and be prepared when students return in August.

DELANEY: With all the new rules around socializing, I asked Jada Randle how she feels about being back in school.

JADA: I don't want to be back in school. I just wanted to get out the house.

DELANEY: For NPR News, I'm Ryan Delaney in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.