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Flint, MI— The sounds of teachers’ voices, muffled giggles, and desks dragging across the floor echoed through the hallways of Eagle’s Nest Academy for the first time in nearly a year as students returned to classrooms on Tuesday.
Eagle’s Nest, an elementary charter school in Flint’s north side, began hybrid, in-person learning on Feb. 1. But with the coronavirus pandemic still looming, staff and students are adjusting to a new way of operating.
“I am very hopeful. I know this is what is best for our scholars, to be in person. Learning in person, being able to really see if they’re grasping what we’re teaching. I think online has been hard for us,” Principal DeNesha Rawls-Smith said.
On Jan. 8, Governor Gretchen Whitmer set a statewide goal for all school districts in Michigan to offer an in-person learning option no later than March 1. Many, like Eagle’s Nest, have adopted a hybrid plan which allows families to choose between in-person or remote instruction.
Of Eagle’s Nest’s 160 kids in grades K-6, approximately 120 opted to return.
The first morning back, buses ran behind schedule as staff and students adjusted to new protocols. Tapped-off bus seats marked where kids could and couldn’t sit in order to maintain social distancing. Before getting on the bus, each child had their temperature checked.
“Twenty-eight scholars can comfortably fit on the bus. However more can fit on the bus if they are family and they can sit together… We have a driver and the aide on [the busses] and the aide takes the temperature of the scholars as they get on. Anyone that is over 100.4, they do have to return back to mom or dad,” Dean of Students Kevin Johnson said.
Once in their classrooms, the scene was almost normal. Teachers paced as they reviewed the agenda or asked students about yesterday’s reading assignment. Some students, still half asleep, sat motionless, while others’ hands shot up eagerly.
Normal, save for the plexiglass surrounding each child’s desk, the blue footprints spaced six feet apart to guide the flow of traffic, the temperature check station near the entrance, and the 50-inch monitors in classrooms displaying the faces of students tuning in from home.
Preparations for students’ return began in August and has rolled out in phases, Rawls-Smith said. Teachers have undergone several professional development and software trainings for online teaching. Staff also returned to the building two weeks before students to become familiar with the new safety procedures.
“The training and all the protocols that we put in place is not just to protect the children but to protect us, too. Because of the teaching shortage in Michigan and teachers not wanting to return face-to-face, it’s important that we stay safe, too,” Ebony Roman said, a sixth-grade teacher.
Despite the safety measures, parent Taneka Wood felt apprehensive dropping off her 7-year-old daughter at school.
“I’m nervous…I don’t want nothing to happen to my daughter,” she said, adding that learning from home has been a struggle.
“We’re just going to go from here and just pray to God that everything works out,” Wood said.
Ensuring the children remain safe and comply to social distancing is all about “modeling,” Rawls-Smith said.
“We met with our parents via Zoom to go over [practicing] at home. Have students wear their masks at home so they can build a tolerance for them. And also, social distance. Take time in the day to say, ‘Okay, it’s time for you to social distance from your sibling,’ and begin to build the stamina for that,” she said.
Roman spent the first couple hours showing students how to properly sanitize items after using them. This included the pencil sharpener, the toilet seat, the toilet handle, and the bathroom door. She then had students demonstrate what they had learned.
“We’re still trying to make it as normal as possible so they can know school didn’t change, it just adjusted the way we sit,” Roman said.
In Amin Miller’s second grade classroom, the students went straight to work. Miller asked them to share some good news about their day and 7-year-old Iyana Stewart raised her hand. Miller gave her a laptop so her classmates on video could hear her.
“I helped my granny mop the floor and wash the dishes,” she said.
Classroom sizes are small, no more than 13 students, and school days are divided into student cohorts. The first cohort attends school on Monday and Tuesday and the second cohort Thursday and Friday. Wednesdays are reserved for deep cleaning.
Sixth-grader Shawn Smith, who is 11 years old, said he’s excited to be back in school.
“The only problem is the COVID thing…but I’m going to stay safe,” he said.
Shawn plays basketball at Eagle’s Nest and wants to be a professional basketball player. Though he’s still be able to practice on his own, he hasn’t been able to play with the team. The school currently has no plans to reinstate sports.
Eagle’s Nest is working with the Genesee County Health Department to get their teachers vaccinated. Currently, only one staff member has received the vaccine.
“What’s propelling us past any fear or inhibition is the need. The need of our scholars, it is great. We’re in a city where our families have suffered already from lead poisoning and then to add a pandemic on top of that [which has] forced families in a situation where they have to try to provide the education to their scholars, with our help, of course, but it’s not the same as us being right there with them. And so, that need, I think, has pushed us beyond our fear,” Rawls-Smith said.