The first day of school at Sweeney Elementary School was quieter than usual as parents hugged their kindergarteners goodbye and wished them a good day of school for the very first time. The little ones walked into their kindergarten-designated doorways, many with trepidation, as principal Derek Bell welcomed students into the building as best he could with two masks between them.
On the other side of the school, students unloaded from buses, some for the very first time, as Dean of Students Jody Hansen greeted them and resisted the urge to give hugs.
“It’s so hard not to hug them,” she said, waving like she was trying to grab an old friend’s attention through a window pane.
In Christie Doorenbos’ fifth-grade classroom, students video-chatting into class from their laptops and waved hello to their in-person classmates, who were learning on opposite hybrid schedules.
“Homies, say hello to the roomies,” Doorenbos said to the screen as the students’ two-inch pixilated squares waved to the other half of their class, whom they would likely only interact with virtually for the foreseeable future, though Doorenbos would see those students in person the next day.
Most first days of school consist of routine chaos for students — hugging old friends and last year’s teachers, high-fiving new friends and discovering their classrooms. Normally, the biggest challenge students face as part of that routine is getting back into one.
But this is 2020, and nothing about the first day of school was like previous years.
This year, students matched their masks with T-shirts and dresses. Extra furniture lined the walls of the hallways to allow for more social distancing in the classrooms. Dots were scattered six feet apart from each other on the floor to show students where to stand in the lunch line. Barriers covered the drinking fountain faucets. And lunchtime meant assigned seating.
Shakopee students who chose the “in-person, hybrid and distance learning” — or IHD — option for this school year will start this fall in the hybrid model under a recommendation from Superintendent Mike Redmond. The model means students will learn in person on an every-other-day basis. Their at-home days will consist of virtual, synchronous and independent learning.
Kindergarten students are the only ones who will learn in-person under this model. At Sweeney, each of the five kindergarten classrooms consisted of 13 students — a small enough number to maintain social distancing without splitting the classes up into a hybrid model.
Jessica Kulick used the first few minutes she had with her new kindergarten students, all of whom were socially distanced on the floor, to show them how to use hand sanitizer before eating breakfast.
Behind the scenes, staff members have worked tirelessly to create a safe environment for the students, Bell said.
Media specialist Katie Bohn will teach all her students except kindergarteners from her desk in the middle of the school’s library. So she created a cozy backdrop behind her desk, with her name spelled backwards so students could read it on their screens. Bohn also created a box for her computer to stand on.
“I like my camera up,” she said as she took the box out from under her desk before she had to get ready for her first class: the same fifth graders who had just finished saying hello to Doorenbos’ classroom.
Breakfast is served on carts that are wheeled to each classroom to minimize cafeteria lines before school. Each night when students leave, disinfectant will be sprayed throughout the building to kill any bacteria still lingering on surfaces or in the air. Hand sanitizing stations are seen everywhere you look.
Despite the changes and adjustments teachers have had to make this year, Bell said one thing’s for sure: with smaller class sizes, teachers have a unique opportunity to get to know each individual student better.
“The ability to get to know (the students) and give them their full attention… is something that I think will spark a conversation for the coming years, even after this is over,” Bell said.