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Teachers reflect on first day of school

By JOYANNA LOVE/ Managing Editor

The first day of school for Chilton County Schools on Sept. 8 looked a little different this year as students had the option of in person or online learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many classes in Chilton County Schools had already begun using laptops and online resources, so the concept was not totally new for many students.

However, the online learning program, Schoology, being used for some grades is new for this year.

Classrooms look different this year as teachers implement techniques to encourage social distancing.

Jessica Smith of Maplesville High School said heading into the school year she wondered “what it was going to be like because of all the new things in place.”

In Smith’s kindergarten classroom, this includes dividers and keeping desks spread out. Students are also eating lunch in the classroom.

Betty McCay of Verbena High School had mixed thoughts as the start date for school approached.

“I was excited that I was going to be able to see my students, my colleagues, and getting back to a routine,” McCay said. “However, I have spent every day with my 16-month-old son since March 13, and it was hard thinking I would no longer see him as much. I was anxious to see what our classrooms would look like and how my teaching style would have to change.”

This change meant a departure from having students work in small groups together as they had in the past.

In addition to COVID-related changes, McCay is also teaching fifth and sixth grade English Language Arts for the first time

Haley Carroll of Maplesville High said she wondered if she was ready for all the changes of this year.

“I was very nervous to say the least simply because I did not know what to expect. None of us did,” Carroll said.

She commented that it “broke my heart” to put the desks “as far apart as possible.”

“I don’t like this type of set up where students are in rows,” she said. I like to have students in groups where they can communicate with the other students in their group and complete activities and assignments together and independently.”

Carroll has also had to change her morning routine and refrain from giving her third-grade students a good morning hug.

Smith said the first day went well.

“We had very little crying,” Smith said.

Students who attended preschool last year are having to get used to the playground being off limits.

“The first day of school this year was not as bad as I had first thought it would be,” McCay said. “The students went with the flow of things as they were getting familiar to their schedules.”

Carroll also said the first day went well.

“Overall, my class and I had a fantastic day,” she said. “I read them a book called ‘First Day Jitters,’ and I had several activities we did based on the book. We shared what our own first day jitters were and how we felt now that we were actually in class together.”

McCay expected to have a review for a few weeks since classes had not met for nearly six months.

“I am also starting something new with my teaching style by using interactive notebooks,” McCay said. “I am excited that my on-campus students will be able to participate in this teaching style with me. However, I have had to learn to become creative and dig deep for resources for my online students.”

Brandy Spearman, first-grade teacher at Verbena, said also has students who chose online learning.

“Since I teach first grade, I wanted to make sure that my students have interactive assignments to complete that don’t always require a printed sheet of paper in case they don’t have access to a printer at home,” Spearman said.

Perhaps the most prominent difference comparing the first day of school to previous years for Smith and Carroll was that students could not see their smiles under their masks.

“Other than that, it really doesn’t look as drastically different as you would think,” Smith said.

For McCay, she noticed a marked decrease in the usual first day excitement.

“They knew this year was going to be different, and they were very anxious,” McCay said. “You could feel the tension in the room as they wondered what was going to happen this year. Some students were not as excited about school because the majority of their friends chose the online option.”

She is concentrating on making this year fun for students in spite of everything.

“I was super excited about being back at school, but I also had concerns about my family and students being possibly exposed to COVID-19,” Spearman said.

Spearman has made sure that each student has their own supplies.

“I also added more sanitation stations around my room with extra germ-x, paper towels, tissues, and cleaning wipes to help keep the spread of germs down inside our classroom,” she said.

For Spearman, not seeing all of her students in person was the most notable difference on the first day of school.

However, there were positive moments.

“It was wonderful to see the students on the first day and to see the excitement on their faces being back at school and seeing their friends,” Spearman said.

Although students did not come back to school until Sept. 8, teachers were already hard at work learning the online program Schoology that would be used for online students. Some said Teacher Pay Teachers helped with funding needed resources. For Carroll, preparing the online lessons also involves creating videos of her teaching for students to watch.

“I want things for my online students to be as similar as possible to what we are doing in the classroom,” Carroll said.

Smith has one student who is doing online and has uploaded the work for them to access. She will be incorporating more interaction via the computer next week.

McCay also has students who have chosen the online option.

Online students are required to sign in each day at some point and complete the work. However, the students have between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. to do this.

“The most important thing that online students need to know is that it is their responsibility to complete these assignments on the due date that is given,” McCay said.

Students and parents are being encouraged to contact teachers with questions during the teacher’s planning time. However, since elementary teachers planning period is 20-30 minutes, teachers are also trying to work with parents who may have to submit a question after the normal school day ends.

“We as teachers will not know if a student is struggling online if that student does not reach out to us,” McCay said. “The teachers trying to teach both online and on campus students are performing two jobs at once.”

There are still things to look forward to this school year.

“It’s always fun to teach kindergarten because they come in as babies and you watch them grow through the year,” Smith said. “That’s one of my favorite things as a teachers getting them ready for first grade … With all the new, we are still looking forward to a really good school year and a great group of kids.”

McCay said she hopes to see teachers and students “get on the same page” no matter which option they have chosen for learning this year.

Carroll is glad to be back in the classroom and is looking forward to getting to know her students.