The hallways and classrooms of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) are more lively these days, now that around 90 percent of students have transitioned back to in-person instruction as of Monday, April 26.
When the COVID pandemic forced schools to shut down entirely and resort to remote learning, the high school worked to determine a plan for partial, and eventually full, reopening.
Beginning by implementing pool testing within the general student population, officials worked to establish safeguards that would allow for a hybrid model, where students were separated into cohorts. At that point, about 25 percent of the student population was opting for all remote learning.
After a mandate by Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeff Riley required schools to work toward getting back to full in-person learning no later than May 17, MVRHS officials sent out a survey gauging student and family comfort.
School Assistant Principal Jeremy Light told The Times the collaboration between teachers, staff, and administrators to get the building prepared for the mass return was a daunting task.
But after the first week of welcoming all students back into the building, Light said, he is pleased with the fruits of their labor.
In complying with the updated Centers for Disease Control social distancing requirements of three feet when masked and six feet when unmasked, the logistical stumbling block of lunchtime was the greatest challenge for administrators.
Three locations are designated as lunch areas: the cafeteria, the gym, and eventually an outdoor eating space, which will also be used as an outdoor classroom.
Students are divided into two separate lunch periods, with freshman and sophomore students in one block, and juniors and seniors in another, Light said.
In order to provide students with some much-needed freedom and opportunities for socialization, the high school is not assigning seats for lunchtime, but is instead utilizing a QR code check-in process.
Groups of students go to their assigned lunchroom, grab a boxed lunch, and then can choose where they want to sit, at which point they scan a QR code attached to their desk.
“They take their phone out, check in at the desk, and each scan goes directly to a spreadsheet for me,” Light said. “That way, if anyone gets sick or is a close contact, I know exactly where they are sitting for contact tracing.”
Because the students feel they are being respected by being given these liberties, Light said, they feel more inclined to work with the guidelines, follow the rules, and clean up their eating space afterward.
“The kids have been incredible. They are going through the necessary motions. After they are done eating, they have gloves and cleaning supplies, and they clean their space,” Light said.
After the kids clear out, custodians come in and do a deeper clean in preparation for the next lunch block. When eating in the gym, students scan their QR code and sit in the bleachers, although Light noted that the school will soon be replacing the bleachers with desks for the kids.
Another way to support the pride and happiness of students is the beautification of hallways and learning spaces, and Light noted how the school has multiple projects going on to improve the feel and usability of the facilities (including brand-new wood floors in the library).
Although the majority of kids are back in the building full-time, students can use remote learning until the end of the school year, based on a state order that requires Massachusetts schools to offer the alternative option.
Although the hallways are a little more active now, blue arrows on the floor still indicate foot traffic direction, and desks are still spaced apart, according to health guidelines.
Light said students have been “phenomenal” in following the arrows, and have been equally as responsible with mask and social distancing requirements, although occasional outbursts of extreme happiness and relief can be seen in the hallways from time to time. “You’ll see that occasional elbow or fist bump from kids walking by each other when you know they really just want to hug. And you just say, ‘Uh-uh, no touching quite yet,” Light laughed.
Another challenge that needed to be addressed was having enough individual desks for students, so the school ordered an additional 200 desks to be placed in classrooms in lunch areas.
The school is also planning on rewarding seniors with a special picnic in the courtyard, where they will be able to enjoy a nice lunch on a warm and sunny day. “All the kids have been through so much, but the seniors especially — they deserve something nice,” Light said.
Pool testing is ongoing at the high school. Light said students who are randomly selected, along with the entire slew of spring athletes, pick up their tests on Tuesday, and return them to the school drop-off on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning.
Zoom is still a tool being used by teachers who need to support those who opt for remote learning. Classes are often live-streamed to remote learners, and teachers will sometimes include asynchronous instruction in their online lessons.
Light noted that if someone is quarantining due to a positive COVID test, or from being a close contact, that student is entitled to remote instruction.
For students who have been missing that connection with their teachers and peers for so long, Light said, being back in school full-time is making all the difference.
“Especially for freshmen — it’s tough to build a relationship with a teacher you don’t really know entirely through Zoom,” he said.
He called the return of students a “rejuvenation of that ‘excited to be back in school’ feeling that kids haven’t felt in so long.”
Freshman Savannah Meader said she is enjoying her first time in the high school, although it has taken some getting used to. “There are different rules and stuff, because of COVID. But I love seeing new people and getting to meet all my teachers in person,” Meader said.
Meader is a three-sport athlete, and she says playing sports has helped her make new connections and friendships.
She added that the teachers and school staff have created a welcoming environment for incoming students, and she is excited to continue meeting new friends and mentors.
“Everyone has been really nice and welcoming. I have had my close friends that I have grown up with, but seeing all these new people and new faces — being able to make those new connections has been really fun,” Meader said.
Senior student, Willa Welch, said she is happy to be back in a “more normal” environment among her peers and teachers. “Everyone was so bubbly and happy to see each other on Monday. It almost felt like the first day of school, but it was the latest first day of school ever,” she laughed. Being able to sit with her friends at lunch and see more of her classmates walking in the hallways, she said, has made a difference in her school experience.
Welch added that she is a member of the student council, and is proud to say that graduation plans are being solidified, and the seniors are getting excited.
“I think the whole senior class was pretty happy hearing that we can have our families there and invite some guests,” Welch said.
Gearing up for graduation
MVRHS is getting commencement plans in place, and recently issued state guidance will dictate how many audience members can be in attendance, how much space must be kept between individuals, and what kinds of fanfare can be included in the ceremony. Nell Coogan, restorative coordinator at MVRHS and head of the graduation planning effort, said the school is currently anticipating a graduation on the varsity baseball field. Attendance is limited to six guests per graduate, with a maximum attendance limit of around 1,000 people in the outdoor space. According to the state guidance, outdoor venues do not have to adhere to any capacity limit, but must follow social distancing and mask requirements.
If graduating students are outdoors and masked, they may be seated three feet apart, although all other attendees must be seated six feet apart and wear masks, except for members of the same household or group.
All guests need to register in advance of the commencement, and staff must confirm that all guests entering the venue have complied with registration and ticketing requirements. Online ticketing will require guests to fill out an attestation form listing any COVID-like symptoms or close contacts.
Directional pathways for foot and vehicle traffic must be posted clearly, along with signage requiring masks and social distancing.
The Minnesingers are slated to perform at graduation this year, and special distancing must be followed for outdoor singing and instrumental performances. At least 10 feet between performers is required, and at least 25 feet between performers and the first row of the audience.
Coogan added that the school is looking to have some sort of evening event prior to commencement — “not quite the prom, but something that will be fun for the seniors, as things will hopefully be eased up by early June.”
And class night is back at the Tabernacle, along with an honors night that administrators hope to hold at the high school, as per tradition. “We are trying to keep everything relatively short and sweet, but we still want to give graduates a really special experience, and do some fun things with them,” Coogan said.