SCHENECTADY — During a read-aloud on Monday morning, Zoller Elementary second-grade teacher Katie Ferguson moved easily through the wide spaces between desks, calling on one student or another, soliciting questions, comments and ideas.
The mask she and her students wore were new, but the benchmarks of an elementary school standby where all there. Holding the book aloft – the aptly-named “First Day Jitters” – Ferguson prodded her students to make predictions about what was forthcoming in the book and connections to their own personal experiences.
“Let’s read the story and see if we can pick up some clues,” Ferguson said. “Look at the pictures. Listen to the words.”
“That’s us,” one of the students said of the nervous and excited students in the book.
As Ferguson engaged the different students in her class, she kindly reminded them to speak more loudly to compensate for their face coverings; she moved throughout the classroom, making eye contact with individual students.
“Remember, be loud with your mask voice,” she said.
Linking the story to her students’ lives, Ferguson inquired whether any of the kids were at Zoller for the first time.
“Is anybody at a new school today? Raise your hand if you’re at a new school,” she asked her class of about a dozen students. Half of more of the students raised their hand. The walls were still decorated with the posters and activities that cover a typical second-grade wall, but the limited desks, spaced chairs and lack of rugs or beanbags marked the start of a new school year unlike any before.
“It feels like a new school to some of us,” said Ferguson, the 2012 New York state teacher of the year.
Down the length of the Zoller hallway containing Ferguson’s room were all of the elementary school’s socially-distanced classrooms, while on the other side of the building Yates teachers and students set up a temporary home after district officials consolidated elementary schools as a cost-saving measure.
The 11 Zoller classrooms occupy one wing of the school, while Yates’ six rooms fill the wing that in the past has housed Zoller’s fourth and fifth grades. Each wing has its own entrance and exits, and many of the classroom have direct access outside, minimizing students contacts and interactions.
Yates staff brought a rug from the front of their school to welcome students at their new entrance at Zoller.
“We didn’t bring the rug, we brought Yates school,” said Yates Principal Rob Flanders, who toured the shared school Monday alongside Desmond O’Connor, Zoller’s acting principal.
As the principals oversaw the school operations from welcoming students at drop off to distributing take-home meals, they also managed a separate online school that about half of their students will rely on this year. Throughout the morning the principals fielded numerous emails and calls from parents in need of help logging students on for the virtual classes. One parent walked two blocks to Zoller school with laptop in hand to get help accessing their child’s virtual classroom.
“I’m constantly getting emails for passwords,” O’Connor said.
Whether at home or in school, Monday served as the first opportunity to introduce students directly to the many new rules, procedures and expectations of the school year.
“How do you get a drink? How do you ask to use the bathroom?” Flanders said. “What’s different in this COVID world?”
A lot is different in this COVID world. Students stay put in classrooms while teachers move. Elementary school is dismissed at noon and students are sent home with reheatable lunches to avoid the contact risks of serving meals in school; students then log in for virtual classes in the afternoon. Students are limited to rooms with exterior windows and the most air flow and filtration. Cleaning crews roam the halls, wiping down and disinfecting high-touch areas throughout the day. Sign-in sheets sit on a desk outside every classroom, including those that are not in use. Before going into a room, any visitor must register their name and contact information in case the data is later needed to track down people potentially exposed to COVID-19.
But the teachers were excited to be back in the classroom, grabbing hold of whatever normal was available to them and their students.
“I’m glad to be back,” said Danielle West, a Yates fifth-grade teacher. “It’s a little bit of normal that we needed.”
West brought in face masks for her students to decorate, giving way to their creative sides as they prepared the backup masks for their desks. She said much of the morning was spent getting to know her students and going over the new rules — “a lot of rules.” But she and the building principals said the first morning had gone smoothly and that students appeared to be taking the changes in stride.
“Kids are so resilient,” she said. “They are so resilient.”
While most all Schenectady students in grades 7-12 started the year remotely, Oneida and Mont Pleasant middle schools were both open to sixth-graders; Mont Pleasant also housed Central Park sixth-graders.
The six-sixth grade classrooms at Oneida were strategically placed to be near stairwells and bathrooms while separated form other rooms. The classes were divided into three teams with a pair of teachers switching between rooms -– an English and social studies teacher and a math and science teacher. The students used four separate entrances to get to class on Monday. While at full capacity Oneida might house nearly 750 students, closer to 115 filled the building for the first day of school, Oneida Principal Tony Farina estimated.
“When you’re in middle school your whole life, you miss the noise,” Farina said as he walked down mostly-empty hallways past unused lockers. “We’ll make the best of it.”
In the schools empty library, librarian and technology specialist Michael Sheridan worked the phones answering parents’ questions about virtual learning. He said his main goal was to let parents know that the school staff is there to support them. “The priority is to let them know they will be taken care of,” he said.
Sixth-grade teacher Rick DeCarr said it was a relief to be back in a classroom with students for the first time since March 13, when schools were shut down. He said he spent the morning familiarizing his class with one another and the new school rules. DeCarr, who has championed the use of classroom technology, said he is excited about the chance to explore new ways to engage students using technology, but he also emphasized the importance of getting to work in the same room as his students.
“Even with a mask on it’s a breath of fresh air,” he said.
Correction 9:26 a.m. 9/15: An earlier version of this post included an incorrect time of elementary dismissal. Elementary school is dismissed at noon.