Teachers, students tell us what it’s like attending in-person classes during COVID-19 pandemic

Terry Adkins, principal of St. Brigid Catholic School in Xenia, talks about the first month of classes

XENIA — “Pleasantly surprised.”

St. Brigid Principal Terry Adkins used that phrase five times in less than an hour Friday to describe how the Catholic elementary school’s first month of in-person classes has gone.

Ohio schools planned and planned for months, working with families and health officials on COVID-19 details, but eventually many of them bit the bullet and brought students and staff together.

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It hasn’t been perfect. The Fairborn and National Trail districts each moved one school back to online learning this week, and the Springboro district has seen at least 10 students test positive. But the vast majority of schools that are offering in-person learning are still plugging away.

“We were worrying and planning for six months, and the target kept changing,” Adkins said. “But this is the best spot we’ve been in in six months, because it worked. We got here and did a lot of tweaking the first couple days. It took more time to clean and follow the safety protocols. And lining up little kids is like herding cats. But we’ve been pleasantly surprised with how well it’s gone."

St. Brigid, which started Aug. 27, has not had a COVID-19 case (a health department reporting error earlier this month briefly said they did, but the case was at another school).

Second-graders in Carol Keating's classroom at St. Brigid's Catholic School in Xenia learn about synonyms Friday, Sept. 25, 2020.
Second-graders in Carol Keating's classroom at St. Brigid's Catholic School in Xenia learn about synonyms Friday, Sept. 25, 2020.

Credit: Jeremy P. Kelley

Credit: Jeremy P. Kelley

On Friday, 17 of teacher Carol Keating’s second-graders were learning about synonyms in their regular classroom. Learn-from-home students in some grades were watching classes live thanks to high-tech OWL cameras. And the playground sounded like a playground, complete with balls being kicked and first-graders squealing.

Adkins said social distancing was one of the biggest challenges, even with 10% of last-year’s enrollment choosing remote learning and another 10% leaving for separate homeschooling programs.

But the school’s maintenance staff built wood-and-plexiglass dividers that allow teachers to have students sit in clusters of four desks, with clear plexiglass barriers between them. Each cluster of four is spaced apart from the other.

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“It’s been much better than I expected,” Keating said. “The kids have been wonderful with their masks. I tell them, if you’re sitting behind your plexiglass you can pull your mask down and take a break. If you’re going to talk, put your mask on. I really feel like their mindset is, I’m helping everybody else.”

Keating said the hardest part has been telling young students who like to move that they have to stay in their desks, rather than reading on the carpet or going to different stations. She said she tries to build in a lot of controlled breaks so the kids can move.

Eighth-grader Aidan Fermier misses his friends who are doing school online, and said it can be hard to work in small groups given the plexiglass barriers, but he likes using more technology and said some people blow out of proportion “how much we’re struggling.”

“The biggest difference has been the masks and plexiglass, but honestly after the first week or two, it just becomes the normal. It’s not that big of a deal,” he said.

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Eighth-grader Ruby Gross said she feels safe at school, pointing out the plexiglass, plus the fact that everyone gets their temperature taken and has to do regular hand-washing.

She wishes all of the upper grades could have recess together like in other years, but she was glad music and gym class didn’t get canceled for COVID reasons.

A sign outside St. Brigid's Catholic School in Xenia celebrates the school's lack of COVID-19 cases in the first month of in-person school on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020.
A sign outside St. Brigid's Catholic School in Xenia celebrates the school's lack of COVID-19 cases in the first month of in-person school on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020.

Credit: Jeremy P. Kelley

Credit: Jeremy P. Kelley

“I didn’t really know what to expect coming in to this school year,” Gross said. “You live with how it is and make the best of it.”

Middle school can be a tough age, but Julie Carrabine, who teaches social studies and language arts to seventh and eighth-graders, credited older students with stepping up and being responsible leaders. She said even when school is different, character education doesn’t change

Carrabine said academically, there was more variation than usual in where kids stood in August after spring online school plus summer break. She said remote learning is better now than in the spring, in part because of the OWL cameras.

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“Back when everyone was (online), the biggest loss was not being with those kids in that moment, watching them process everything and correcting misconceptions in real time,” she said. “The process of back-and-forth took so much longer, and the kids struggled. The cameras mean for both the kids here and at home, I can help them out instantly.”

Adkins said one of the worst things has been the loss of special events like grandparents day and field trips, but a great thing has been cooperation and flexibility from students and families.

In the meantime, his staff is working harder and people are adjusting to tweaks like breaking lunch into three groups instead of two and getting outside more.

“A handful of parents thought we did too much and a handful of parents thought we did too little,” Adkins said. “The majority of people said we’re going to roll with it and trust your plan. They’ve been very supportive.”

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