Flint, MI— The bell rang and, for the first time in over a year, the halls of Southwestern High School filled with the sounds of lockers slamming and squeaky sneakers as high schoolers shuffled between classes.
Flint Schools’ fall semester kicked off Aug. 4 with COVID safety measures such as social distancing, masks, sneeze guards, and temperature check stations still in place.
“Masks will be required for everyone who enters our buildings, and we will continue to practice social distancing. These measures help protect our entire school community, and we will continue to evaluate these protocols based on recommendations from both state and local health agencies,” Superintendent Anita Steward said in a newsletter to parents and students.
Students and teachers said they were glad to be back in classrooms.
“I’m glad to see my friends, teachers, faculty members, I’m glad to see them all. And especially with this being my senior year, I was actually hoping for us to be back face to face, so I can get one last year in this building,” TK Thomas said, a 17-year-old student.
The district has operated virtually since Aug. 2020 due to the pandemic. In March 2021, Flint Schools launched a hybrid learning option, which allowed students who wished to return to school to do so on certain days of the week.
However, less than a month after schools reopened, district officials ceased in-person learning due to an alarming rise in COVID cases.
“It kind of sucked,” Katrina Ireland, a ninth grade English language arts teacher, said of virtual teaching. “I like walking around. I like talking to each one individually and getting to know them. And you can’t do that online. Because how do I pull a kid aside? How do I give them extra help?”
For the 2021-2022 school year, students and families can still choose virtual learning, but Principal of Southwestern Christopher Ochodnicky said around 660 high schoolers are opting for face-to-face instruction.
Raena Graham-Grant, a parent, said she wasn’t excited to send her sixteen-year-old son back to school because she’s concerned other students aren’t vaccinated.
“I know for a fact that all parents didn’t get their children vaccinated,” she said. “I think that it’s good that they have the right to make the choice. However, if you bring your children into an environment where they’re going to be exposed, you have to make a choice that’s right for your family. And for my family, it was definitely right to have them vaccinated.”
Despite her concern, she said her son missed his friends and wanted to be in school, so she allowed him to go back.
Teachers are also doing what they can to prevent the spread of COVID.
In Ireland’s classroom, she arranged the desks so that students aren’t directly facing one another. She also said she has fans running for circulation and air purifiers.
“We’re doing our best. Just want to make it a great year,” she said.
Part of that means training teachers to help students catch up after a year of online learning, Ochodnicky said.
“Some students did experience some learning loss during COVID, and that’s a big part of what we’re doing this year is trying to find ways to increase that,” he said. “Most of the professional development is geared around helping those students to regain the little dip in reading and the dip in math skills that we saw.”
While Ochodnicky said he’s excited to have students back, the rise of the Delta COVID variant worries him.
“It’s very good to have them face-to-face, but I am nervous. They keep talking about all these new variants and these strains. I’m just really hoping that the numbers stay low enough that we can stay face to face with these guys all year long because they really need it,” he said.
Seventeen-year-old student Shabaya Gurd said that while getting sick “is a possibility,” she’s confident in her school’s safety measures.
“The school is doing the best they can with social distancing and making people wear their masks,” she said. “I’ve had a good experience here, that’s why I was looking forward to coming back.”
For now, events like homecoming, football games, and prom are all scheduled to take place. However, the district is prepared should a COVID resurgence force students online again, though virtual learning isn’t ideal, Ochodnicky said.
“I think everybody learned this year that it’s a struggle to do virtual education. Some students excel at it (but) lot of kids really struggle with that format, and they really need to have that live interaction with their teachers,” he said.