When schools let out for the weekend on that Friday in March, the worst of the pandemic’s impacts were clearly on the horizon, but few expected students not to return to class for six months.
The governor’s March 14 executive order to close North Carolina schools for two weeks was an initial attempt to halt the spread of COVID-19 when there were just 23 known cases in the state.
Until this summer, it was unclear whether the physical closures would extend into the next school year with thousands of cases in the region alone.
On September 21, Brunswick County Schools finally reopened its doors to a limited number of students at a time. But it isn’t the same schooling we once knew.
Inside Southport Elementary School, second-grade teacher Spring Richardson teaches a small class of about 10 kids a reading lesson while, just one hallway over, Kindergarten virtual teacher Grace Piotrowski sits in an empty room and flips the pages of Goldilocks in front of a webcam.
In the fifth grade building, Colleen Rupkalvis is simultaneously teaching two groups of children: one on Zoom at their homes and one sitting directly in front of her.
“Teachers have had to really do some juggling with their scheduling and rethink how they might teach a lesson based on who’s at home and who’s here and how to keep the learning going,” said Principal Peg Bourne. “That’s always the goal. Just keep making sure the kids are being successful with their learning, whether they’re home or here.”
The school seems quiet, but it’s actually been busy. Staff is preparing to transition back to face-to-face learning five days a week starting this Monday, and at the top of their to-do list is to find out how to maintain the social distancing they’ve achieved, with even more students in the building at a time.
“I think everybody’s concerned, just like the entire nation is, about COVID,” Bourne says, “but I think that we’ve been successful so far in taking extra precautions and doing our best to take care of kids.”
Of the roughly 500 children enrolled, 117 signed up for 100% remote learning in the first semester. With the recent decision by the governor and school board to open buildings at full capacity, about 25 parents requested to return their kids to in-person school. There’s also a small handful of families who would like to revert to the virtual academy.
“It may even out some,” Bourne says.
The school is noticing students are behind in their progress after the last semester. The switch to remote learning in the spring was sudden, and teachers were ill-prepared at the time to reach children and parents.
“Kids have slipped a little bit, but they didn’t get to finish their school year the year before so you can’t expect that they’re going to come in on that grade level,” Bourne says. “I just always tell teachers growth is the goal.”
As of September 29, Southport Elementary has not identified any cases of COVID-19 in the school, or quarantined anyone out of precaution.
South Brunswick Middle
Inside South Brunswick Middle School, student seating is spaced out. They have Chromebooks on their desks while half their peers are tuning in via Zoom.
Other than a handful of fully remote classes, teachers are adapting to simultaneously lecturing kids who are in the room and kids who are watching them on their screens.
“That’s been the most challenging, I think, for the teachers at this point. Every week there’s a new challenge,” Principal Marie Laboy said. “But I think they’re doing a tremendous job with it.”
Of the 641 enrolled students, 36% are fully remote and 64% are coming in person two days a week. However, participation in at-home learning is half of what it should be.
“It was the same in March,” said Laboy. “I don’t know why. I don’t have an answer.
“It’s frustrating for the teachers and for their parents.”
Students are marked absent when they don’t submit assignments or check-in with teachers, unlike in the spring when the work couldn’t count against them.
“This is a regular school year so whether you’re here or not, school counts. Your work counts for your grades,” the principal stated. “Last (school) year, it was a whole new world. This (school) year, we have a plan.”
While at school, the pre-teens can be forgetful of social distancing, but overall they’re complying with the protocols.
“The students that are here are very respectful of what the parameters of being at school are,” Laboy said. “We talked a lot about it before they got back and I know parents want them here, so they want them to follow the rules.”
South Brunswick Middle has quarantined one person out of precaution, but there are zero cases of COVID-19 in the school as of September 29.
South Brunswick High
South Brunswick High School students are lucky to take part in what is now considered a not-so-normal routine: eating lunch in the cafeteria.
They’re one of the few schools in the district to do so.
“We just felt like this gives them a chance to be not in a classroom,” Principal Michael Hodges explained. “They can take their masks off when they’re eating, and it gives teachers a break.”
He added that the cafeteria has adequate space to distance the students: at each long table there are only three open seats, which are assuredly six feet apart.
“We literally measured with a tape measure,” Hodges said.
Breakfast dining is different. In the morning, the high schoolers stay on the bus, or in their cars, until 7:15 a.m. and then grab a to-go breakfast on their way to first period.
Of the 1,050 students, about 400 are fully remote. Like the other area schools, teachers are often educating the students at home and the ones present at the same time, or they post their content later for those who couldn’t attend the live session.
“I think it’s a lot more work on the teachers, to be honest,” the principal said.
The school is also following its protocols. Students can remove their masks while seated six feet apart if the windows are open, and teachers can take their class to the courtyard for a break.
Similar to the neighboring middle school, social distancing feels abnormal to the teenagers.
“In a normal school year, they congregate and talk and we have to shoo them onto class, but now the worst thing is having to spread them out,” Hodges says. “I think that’s probably what they’re missing.”
South Brunswick High has quarantined two people out of precaution so far, due to close contact with a case, although the school has yet to see any confirmed cases of COVID-19.