Kids running around on the playground equipment before the school day will not happen around Pomona Elementary School (PES) this fall.
Pomona Elementary School staff prepared for the start of another school year under new circumstances, which has made the start of a pandemic-affected school year fairly fluid.
The planning started in June as staff worked to develop solid distance learning plans and spent time to complete additional training to navigate distance learning.
While PES staff are focused on educating students as they do every year, there are some changes to the school day, particularly in the morning. Students go through screening stations that are divided by grade level, which is one of the district’s mitigation practices school staff have implemented to abide by local and state health guidelines.
“They go to their entry area and they get their temperature checked and are asked a couple screening questions and then we let them in the building,” Chris Lehman, PES principal said. “We used to just have the playground open to start the morning. We don’t do that. We have a soft start.”
Students arrive for a 15-minute bell work time in their classrooms where they complete various activities before starting the regular school day.
Part of the reason for keeping the playground closed in the morning is to ensure student and staff cohorts remain socially distanced. That continues throughout the school day with the scheduling of classes and transition periods.
“Our first grade classes have lunch together, but outside of that, classes don’t really mix with each other,” Lehman said. “So we’ve been really strategic with our schedule to make sure classes are only interacting with so many adults a day.”
Another difference this school year occurs with specials. Typically, specials teachers would see a class from every grade level daily. This year, those teachers will see all three classrooms of two grade levels for a week to help mitigate risk.
“That way, if we have a case in one of the classes, it would only impact those two grade levels or impact only that grade level,” the principal said.
Lunch time has also been lengthened to allow fewer grades to eat in the cafeteria. Lunch begins at 10:30 a.m. and ends at 1 p.m. as only one grade level — of approximately 60 students — eats in the cafeteria at a time, compared to 120 to 140 students.
Lehman said the students have adjusted to this new normal and have really applied the school’s word for the year — resilient.
“The kids have been resilient,” he said. “That’s been our word this year. They’ve been doing a great job. Resilient is what we’re about. We’re going to make some changes that are going to be hard, but we’re going to learn from it and make it work.”
First grade teacher Niki Taylor said her students are demonstrating their resiliency as they embrace the changes this school year. As a teacher, she said she’s had to balance her instruction.
“Kids are pretty resilient,” Taylor said. “I teach first graders and they are confident and pretty techy. One of the challenges is I just think it’s feeling like we’re getting enough instruction in to prepare them for remote and also being in the moment — to teach for the moment, not just for a potential catastrophe again.”
Taylor also has two children who attend PES, so they are working through the changes together and taking this year as an opportunity to grow and be thankful.
“I love that my kids get to go to school with other kids and they all bring something different to the table,” she said. “I hope that my kids and I all appreciate that diversity more.”
Kendall Taylor, a fifth-grader at PES, said the 2020-21 school year has been crazy, but she is glad to be back with her friends.
When she saw her friends on the first day of school, Kendall said, “I thought that it was pretty fun because I only saw them over Zoom meetings (an app-based video call system) and video chats and so I was glad to see them in person.”
Other mitigation practices include: classroom desks spaced 3 to 6 feet apart, wearing mask/face coverings and social distancing, and cohorts.
“Fifth grade is required to wear masks,” Lehman said. “Everyone else, we really highly encourage it. Our kids — I would say 80-90% of them are wearing them regularly.”
Gathering around the teacher on the floor for story time hasn’t gone away, despite the pandemic. While students can remove their masks while working at their desks, they put them back on for story time. If students do not want to wear their masks, their teachers instruct them to sit socially distanced from their classmates.
“We’re either doing social distancing or wearing masks,” Lehman said.
While fifth-graders have to wear face coverings all day, Kendall said it hasn’t limited their ability to work in groups.
“It’s pretty easy to work in groups,” she said. “We can do a lot of things easier. Fifth grade is kind of harder than all the other grades, so I’m excited to learn new things from it, even though we have to do it differently.”
After learning remotely last spring, Kendall said this school year “I’ll probably learn to be more grateful for my teachers because they work so hard and I’ll be grateful for our principal because he tries his best to keep us at school so we don’t have to go online.”
There may be some uncertainty about what school may look like for the year, but teachers at PES are working to establish connections with their students to foster a school community regardless of the distance between teachers and students.
“Whatever happens, I hope they know that school is a safe place for them and that their school community is their family who is here for each other,” Taylor said. “I also want them to know how important it is to help each other out. It doesn’t matter what you give, it’s how you give it.”
Lauren Brant is a staff writer and digital content coordinator for the Montrose Daily Press.