Island settles into school during COVID

Students and staff adapt to new health protocols and new realities.

Schools across the Island are settling into the new year, which includes outdoor learning spaces and wearing masks during the day. — Lucas Thors

Island students and school staff are adapting to the many health protocols involved with in-person learning, and are delving into the online learning platforms used for remote instruction.

Megan Farrell, principal at the Oak Bluffs School, said the entire staff is happy to welcome kids back to school. She thanked the Oak Bluffs community for their involvement in planning for back-to-school, and the teachers who have dedicated much of their time to the social and emotional well-being of students. 

“We are so happy to be finally connecting with our students again. And the feeling of finally having kids back in our building is energizing and healing,” Farrell said. “Just hearing kids move through the hall, we feel blessed.”

Thanks to the teachers already being adept in the various online learning platforms, Farrell said, providing remote education to students hasn’t been as difficult as it could have been had staff not utilized the platforms prior to the start of school. “We are already skilled in Google Classroom and some of the other virtual programs we are implementing this year,” Farrell said.

She also said the grab-and-go lunch program for students and families is going well. “I am so thankful to our amazing kitchen staff. They are dedicated to getting kids the food they need in school, and will be giving out breakfast for the next day along with lunch for students,” Farrell said. 

In order to be safe as students enter and exit the building, Farrell said dropoff times will be staggered, and different grade levels have been assigned different entrances into the building. 

“There is no longer hanging out and playing ball before and after school. Dismissal will be kind of the same thing — we are timing out each grade level, and having them exit from different areas, one at a time,” Farrell said. She said the above-and-beyond dedication of staff at the Oak Bluffs School has made the reopening much easier for all involved.

“Our staff are thinking about absolutely everything. Our secretary is working on getting together kits for students with scissors, pencils, markers, and other materials that can’t be shared because of health concerns,” Farrell said. 

Because all these additional measures are being taken, Farrell said, students are more confident in their safety and well-being, and can focus more on academics. “When kids know they are cared about, loved, and taken care of, then they can really focus. When they feel safe, they can open their minds up to learning,” Farrell said. “Kids are so resilient through all of this. We continue to tell them that we are taking these precautions because we want them all to be safe and healthy. I am very confident that after all of this, there is going to be a lot of good that comes, and we will be a stronger community.”

Chilmark School Principal Susan Stevens said kids are getting acclimated to remote instruction, and teachers have refined their online platforms, thanks to extensive professional development. “A lot of teachers have really stepped up their organization online, thanks to Modern Teacher and Seesaw training this past summer. We are utilizing landing pages, and are working on any connection issues that we encounter up here in Chilmark,” Stevens said.

Stevens said kids are adapting rapidly to the health procedures, and have been patient with mask wearing. She said the school is using a special Croakie that holds students’ masks around their necks when they are taking mask breaks, so there is no risk of them sharing masks with each other. And for the first time, the Chilmark School has a full-time nurse, who is currently working on getting moved into her new space and organizing her equipment, Stevens said.

Every morning, the Chilmark School has a schoolwide morning meeting, and Stevens said she is happy to see students together as a group again. “There are still lots of new things to get used to, but the kids have a great approach. They really have learned to value their friends through all this, and I think they are just happy to see them again,” Stevens said.

Assistant Superintendent Richie Smith said he has been traveling to Island schools and checking in on classrooms and teachers. He said schools are “much better prepared, compared to last year.”

“Last year, we literally closed the school buildings, and teachers were doing something from home that was pretty much brand-new,” Smith said. “Some of the feedback we got last year was that some students and families had difficulty accessing the online material.”

To remedy this, teachers across the Island have created landing pages, where students and their parents can receive all current and past coursework, along with student support services and other important information. “Everything is in one place for families, which makes things so much easier to follow,” Smith said.

And despite the misconception that remote instruction is easy for teachers, Smith said they actually are working harder to manage these platforms, and provide the best online education experience for their students. “This is far different from what we all experienced in the spring. There has been so much more preparation, and since the academic rigor is there, it is far more rewarding for everyone. It is actual school,” Smith said.