ON THE SCENE: Keene Central School reopens amid pandemic

As students arrived at Keene Central School on Tuesday, Sept. 15, they were welcomed, the parents were thanks, and the kids’ temperatures were checked before they were allowed into the building. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Just before 8 a.m. weekdays, school buses and private cars with parents bringing students arrive at Keene Central School. Superintendent Dan Mayberry and teachers step forward to welcome and check the arriving children’s temperatures. All are masked.

Six weeks ago, the opening of schools this fall was uncertain. Schools had been given not much more than a week to develop a plan of action for teaching and caring for their students in a manner that met state COVID-19 safety protocols.

This plan required they address three options: 100% in-person teaching, all online or a mix of the two. The good news for Keene Central and other area schools is we in the North Country have among the lowest COVID infection rates in the state, allowing them to start following the Labor Day holiday with an in-person/remote mix. Exceptions are the Ausable Valley and Boquet Valley school districts, which are beginning the school year 100% remotely until October because of an outbreak at the Essex Center Nursing Home in Elizabethtown.

In mid-March, in-person classes ended as schools and parents learned that all kids would be learning remotely thenceforward. This year it’s a mix. At KCS, students in kindergarten through grade 6 spend five days in school (with an early release on Wednesday), and students in grades 7-12 spend two days in school and three days learning at home. About half attend classes in person Monday and Tuesday, and the other half Thursday and Friday. All learn remotely on Wednesday. In all, 15% of the students, drawn mostly from high school, spend all five days learning remotely.

Parents, teachers, parents and the staff are all thrilled to have the children back in school, and the kids are excited as well. You can see it in the adults’ eyes and the children’s excitement as they arrive.

“In the summertime, when nobody is here, the building is very quiet, very peaceful although maintenance and other activities are going on,” said Mayberry. “When the kids come back, and the teachers are here, and everyone is in the building, there’s a vibrance that you don’t get when nobody is here. It makes a difference. The place comes alive. You can feel the excitement build as they leave their cars and step off the bus. You can see it in the children’s and teachers’ eyes. They are thrilled to be back together once again.”

Mayberry and Principal Bob Woughter put together the KCS Reopening Committee, a mix of faculty and staff tasked with developing a reopening plan. Ten sub-committees collectively addressed all aspects of school life, from classes to meals and sports/recreation. Mayberry and Woughter highly praised the input and time given by the faculty.

“I’m extremely grateful to be back in the company of our students, especially my brand-new kindergarteners,” said teacher Erin Perkins. “I truly believe that reestablishing routines and schedules will be beneficial to the whole school community, and certainly to the families whose homes were turned into makeshift classrooms from March through June. Everyone did the best they could in light of COVID protocols during the closure, but nothing can replace the student-teacher relationships’ strength for fostering the learning that needs to occur in a school year.”

A vital aspect of the reopening plan is keeping the school community safe. Parents are asked to develop a baseline of their and their children’s good health. Each day they take everyone’s temperature to determine if anyone in the family has a fever over 100, a cough or any other symptoms that reflect a change. If there is no change, they are clear to bring their children to school.

The KCS faculty and staff follow the same procedure. Once students arrive or step on or off the bus, their temperature is checked before entering the building. As the North Country is and has been well under the 1% COVID infection rate since the beginning of the pandemic, the state and Essex County Department of Public Health does not require that the children, parents and staff take COVID-19 tests.

Faculty and staff are aware that last spring’s remote teaching was hard on everyone. Something that often takes someone six months to learn was asked of both teachers and parents to take on and implement within days.

“It was a strain on families,” said Woughter. “The more-younger the children, the more hands-on attention is needed. Parents often needed to be right there with their children the full length of every session. That’s especially hard for a working family. Many online courses in universities are not put together in the three days that we had. They usually start planning the session the semester before, if not earlier than that. Plus, online learning is not the same as brick and mortar. How do you read body language online? You don’t.”

As for sports, the fall schedule is a work in progress. Athletic directors and school administrators work with their colleagues across Section Seven districts to come up with a plan. They know that many large urban sections have put off competitive events between school districts, at least for the fall, possibly the spring as well.

“Everyone is trying to weigh the risks and rewards,” said Woughter. “Athletics, when done properly, is an extension of what we do in the classroom. They are all teaching character building, teamwork and all of those things using a different curriculum. How do we continue to achieve those benefits through physical activities while keeping our children safe. Those are the conversations that are taking place.”

I asked Mayberry, Perkins and Woughter what they’ve learned through all this.

“I have learned that there are no guarantees in what will be expected from us in the coming months,” said Perkins. “Families, teachers and everyone involved in education need to be courageous and adapt. I’ve also learned that the people we encounter daily are all handing their emotions differently. We need to be supportive of the people who are having the most challenging time dealing with change.”

Woughter said that he learned how amazing this community is. He said that the parents were fantastic, and thanks them for providing frank, honest feedback, critical to the planning process for reopening the school. He said that the community was incredibly supportive. People that we put into an almost impossible situation rose to the occasion. He said he learned the real meaning of grit.

“I hope that everyone can continue to make smart choices, you know, protect themselves, which protects everyone else,” said Mayberry. “I hope we have fewer and fewer outbreaks in our region, state, country and the world.”