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Students return to classrooms for first time since March

An atypical first day

Students hopped off buses and headed through the West Middle School doors for the first time since March 12. They were greeted by staff members, who glided thermometers across their heads, checking temperatures. They wore new back-to-school outfits and backpacks, but donned masks as well. 

Eighth-grader Elaina Perez grips her new lanyard, which will hold her mask

Thus kicked off a school year like no other, but one many students and teachers were eager to begin.

“It’s a little different, and a little strange. I don’t know really where things are, but it seems like it’s going to be fine,” said seventh-grader Karly Sanderson, referencing that she was new to the building and that she will spend half of her week at home, learning remotely. 

The district is using a hybrid model, in which half of students attend school Monday and Wednesday, half on Tuesday and Thursday, with each group attending alternate Fridays. That way, about 300 students are in the building at a time compared to the typical 750 students. About 10 percent opted for 100 percent virtual school.

“I feel like it’s going to be good. You get to relax some days,” Karly said. “You get to stay at home. It’s not going to be too bad.”

Still, she prefers seeing friends and teachers in person, not just through a screen. “I really like to see people in general — friends. Even if I don’t get to talk to them as much …. I’m very social. It’s been a little hard.”

First-day Focus

Students walked into their first-hour classes, where desks and tables were spaced apart to seat 10 and 18 students. Awaiting them were new Chromebooks, still in boxes and complete with carrying cases– equipping students with what they need for the blended learning format. They also received lanyards to affix masks and hang around their necks when they aren’t wearing them. 

Eighth-grader Ian McLellan has his temperature taken by Tammy Kruse, office paraprofessional

Along with firing up the Chromebooks and getting to know teachers, the first day focused on orientation activities usually done at August events, but that were canceled this year. Students toured the building, practiced locker combinations and learned safety protocols. Arrows line the hallway floor to direct the lighter-than-usual traffic. Outside, a group of six students sat on yoga mats while teacher Bethany Singer gave them a mask break in the crisp morning air.

Seventh-grade science teacher Justin VandePol welcomed his students, showing an unmasked photo of himself on the screen and sharing a recording he made through Screencastify, a tool he plans to use a lot this year as he leads remote and in-person learning. His words complemented a sign on his wall that reads, “Think like a proton. Always positive.” 

“We are going to work hard this year, no matter what it looks like,” VandePol told the class. “We are going to encourage each other and we are going to have fun.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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