ROCK HALL — Students are back and at Monday’s Kent County Board of Education meeting, reports were that teachers and parents are happy to have children in school again.
The doors at all five of Kent County’s public schools reopened last week with students back in the classroom on a full five-day schedule for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic about 18 months ago.
“I just wanted to give a shoutout to our staff, teachers and administrators who spent the summer preparing for a safe return. Praise goes out to the entire staff for a fantastic first week of school,” Superintendent Karen Couch told board members at the Sept. 13 meeting.
Couch said she visited every school during the first week. She was impressed with how well everything was going.
“Students seemed to be happy. Parents were very happy dropping their kids off,” Couch said.
Over the summer, the board approved a mask requirement for all indoor spaces at Kent County Public Schools. The Maryland State Board of Education later issued a mask mandate for all school systems. That received final approval Sept. 14 from a joint General Assembly committee.
KCPS Director of Teaching and Learning Gina Jachimowicz said she is grateful for the safe reopening of schools.
She said students are wearing masks, except when eating, and practicing enhanced hygiene and social distancing as appropriate. She said classroom layouts have changed and hallway traffic controls have been put in place.
“We are pleased to say that not only were the classrooms inviting, but teachers and students were very serious about taking measures to be safe,” Jachimowicz said.
Couch gave an update on plans to work with the Kent County Health Department, which provides nurses for schools, to provide COVID testing for KCPS staff and students.
She said KCPS does not currently have a sterile space within each school to administer COVID tests. She said the health department is looking for an appropriate space and will then hire staff to do the tests.
Couch said that once everything is in place, likely sometime in October, the health department will be able to provide testing for all KCPS staff and students Monday through Friday.
Tracey Williams, supervisor of students services and secondary education, provided a snapshot of current enrollment numbers. The numbers will not be finalized for the purposes of state reporting until Sept. 30.
As of Sept. 13, the numbers showed a total of 1,730 students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade, including the Blended Learning Academy pairing virtual and in-person classes. That is a decrease of eight students from last year.
There are 770 students enrolled in elementary school, a decrease of six from last year.
There are 82 students in pre-kindergarten; those students are not included in the totals given above.
Kent County Middle School is showing an increase so far this year with 394 students enrolled against 379 last year.
Kent County High School is showing a decrease, with current enrollment at 566 students to last year’s 583.
Cheryl Bachman, head of the Kent County Teachers Association, spoke about the first week of school, as well as the changes brought on by the pandemic.
“One week in and I’m sure we’re all feeling the same combination of excitement and exhaustion,” Bachman told board members. “It has been so nice to have students back in the building, to see more than just the top of their heads or a blank screen.”
Bachman said everyone heard over and over last year about the emotional toll on students of not being in the building. She said teachers felt it too. She said the pandemic also cemented for many educators the need to be present in their own families’ lives and to take the time to value their own mental health.
“As we grow together in this new era of education, please note that you may see some of your teachers setting new boundaries for themselves,” Bachman said. “Please know that is not them stepping away from being active in our school system.”
Bachman said teachers are doing more to take care of themselves and spend time with their own families, especially their young children and aging parents.
“This taking care of themselves can only make them better teachers because, as they say, you cannot pour from an empty cup,” Bachman said.
Board members were out visiting schools during the first week.
Wendy Costa said that for years of talk about computers being the future of education, she was hearing about how happy everyone was to have students back in classrooms.
Nivek Johnson, who also teaches in Montgomery County, spoke about a back to school event held by Janes United Methodist Church in Chestertown. He said more than 100 backpacks were given away.
Student board member Sam Buckel, a senior at Kent County High School, thanked the school system’s staff for all their hard work and dedication.
“I was pleased to see board members within the schools, students back in the building and education starting to go back to whatever normality was,” Buckel said.
Principal Kris Hemstetter gave a presentation to board members about how first through third grades are looking a little different this year Rock Hall Elementary School.
Hemstetter said that because children do not all learn at the same pace, they have taken assessment data to create blended classrooms based on student levels. There are now blended reading classes for first- and second-graders and second- and third-graders, for example.
“This enables greater flexibility for students that may be behind and also those students who are ahead of their current grade level content. It is a way to raise the ceiling and lower the floor to provide and support the diverse learning of our students and to close academic achievement gaps,” Hemstetter said.
She said in speaking with parents, she has received a good response to the blended learning instructional model.