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Here’s what back-to-school might look in the ‘new normal’

The students are met at the school door with a thermometer and a health quiz, answering questions like "Are you feeling sick today?"

  • By Ryan Delaney

 Ryan Delaney/St. Louis Public Radio

The students are met at the school door with a thermometer and a health quiz, answering questions like “Are you feeling sick today?”

Once they pass this quiz, the students in this summer enrichment program outside of St. Louis proceed to folding-chairs spread 10-feet apart across the gymnasium to eat breakfast alone.

Eating so far from friends has been “not great” for Jada Randle. “It’s boring. You just have to sit away from people,” said the 10-year-old.

Jennings School District, which educates about 2,500 students just north of St. Louis, is using this summer program to test an in-person school model that it will roll out for the entire district next month. The program highlights the challenges that lie ahead for schools as they try to safely reopen amid a raging pandemic.

Two groups of a few dozen students, in grades fifth through 12th, come on alternating days for enrichment programs that include computer coding, building design and chess. It’s one of the first public schools in the region to welcome any students and staff back into its buildings on a regular basis, even as neighboring districts cancel plans to open their schools in the fall.

Jennings will offer this alternating day schedule along with a fully online version when school resumes in earnest Aug. 24, a combination that administrators hope will keep capacity at just 25%.

“It’s really going well,” said Vernice Hicks-Prophet, who oversees elementary schools for the district. “We’re working this program so we can get all of the kinks out of it when students return in August.”

Teachers nationwide and in St. Louis have voiced their concerns about keeping themselves and their students healthy. This comes as pressure mounts from government leaders to reopen schools and as coronavirus cases spike around the country. The union representing teachers in Jennings is against reopening for in-person classes.

Business teacher Marc Reid willingly volunteered to come back to school and teach “since we have a lot of safeguards in place, it made me feel very comfortable in doing so.” Tables in his computer lab were spread as far apart as possible, with just one computer on each table.

Sometimes it’s hard to hear students’ questions when their voices are muffled by their masks, he said.

Students are instructed to wear masks except for sips of water from their own cups or bottles. If they showed up bare-faced, they were supplied one. Teachers are also expected to wear masks, though one wasn’t. Students mostly complied with the rule, though masks didn’t always stay on perfectly over their noses and mouths; they’re too hot, several students said.

“Sometimes I pull it down to scratch my face and forget to pull it back up,” said 13-year-old Curtis Grisby.

Grisby, who’s about to start freshman year of high school, said he mostly doesn’t mind the mask and distancing rules, “it’s just a new experience.” But he also predicted that his classmates will not follow every rule, especially when changing classes.

In response to mask and distancing infractions, Superintendent Art McCoy said it will take time to develop habits around the protocols.

“We’re not expecting perfect. That’s why we’re starting early,” he said, adding that the goal will be to balance enforcement while maintaining a positive learning environment, all while keeping the number of COVID-19 cases as low as possible.

When NPR visited, a custodian frequently lapped the hallways with a spray bottle of disinfectant; hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes were scattered around rooms; and teachers told students to sanitize their hands before coming into a classroom.

The district still has some work to do before reopening — while chairs were spaced far apart for eating, not all classrooms were set up for kids to be separated by at least six feet.

Student Jada Randle said she’s worried about more crowded schools too. And as a typical kid, she’s not exactly excited about being back in school. But after being stuck inside since March, she “just wanted to get out of the house.”

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