CHESTERTOWN — While having a mix of in-person and virtual learning remains a necessity for controlling the spread of COVID-19, for most of Kent County’s public school teachers, there is no replacing having students back in the classroom.

“There was an energy in the building that I’ve been missing for about six months,” Kent County Middle School Vice Principal Joe Graf said Tuesday morning.

Last week, hybrid learning — meaning a mix of in-person and virtual instruction — began for pre-kindergarten students and grades three through eight. Starting next week, kindergarten through second grade will be back in the school buildings.

Since mid-March, Kent County Public Schools was operating primarily remote.

Due to construction in the building, Galena Elementary School welcomed grades three, four and five this week.

At the middle school, students report to their classrooms four days a week with Fridays spent at home for virtual learning. At the elementary schools, students are divided into A/B cohorts. So, on Mondays and Tuesdays, students in cohort A will be in the building while cohort B learns from home. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, cohort B comes into schools. All students engage in virtual learning on Fridays.

Superintendent of Schools Karen Couch said Tuesday about 500 students are back in the school buildings. Broken down by school, that’s roughly 90 students in each of the three elementary schools and about 190 in Kent County Middle School.

Before opening up the schools to hybrid, parents were asked to respond to a survey with their preference for fully remote or hybrid learning. About 50% of the school system’s K-8 families responded for a total of 914 responses. Results showed 58.1% supported sending their students back to school while 41.9% preferred a fully remote model.

Families who do not feel comfortable sending their children back do have the option to continue with fully remote learning. As it stands now, Kent County High School students will remain in a fully remote format until the end of January, though some students in the Career and Technology programs have returned to their classrooms one day a week.

Despite the students’ return to the classroom, it’s not all business as usual. COVID-19 protocols have been implemented, such as facial masks, social distancing and continual disinfecting.

“The kids have been great. They’re following all the strict protocols,” Graf said. “They’re happy to be in the building seeing each other for maybe the first time since March.”

Graf said the middle school students have had little trouble following the social distancing guidelines. He said “it’s pretty miraculous that they are doing as well as they are,” considering the students’ young ages.

Calling her students “wonderful,” Brenda Rose, principal of H.H. Garnet Elementary School in Chestertown, said Tuesday her students have been able to adhere to the COVID-19 protocols.

“They’re doing very well, especially with wearing the masks. That hasn’t seemed to be a problem for them,” Rose said. “They’re doing really well with that.”

Couch said custodians have a checklist and are required to regularly clean common spaces and high-touch areas like door knobs. Each night, the buildings are cleaned with a disinfectant sprayer that uses chemicals designed to kill the virus that causes COVID-19, Couch said.

“It disinfects everything that it touches,” Couch said.

Buses are cleaned and disinfected in between drives, Couch said. Bus drivers have received training on best practices for cleaning.

Couch said teachers also are utilizing outdoor learning spaces where available.

If a student comes to school exhibiting COVID-like symptoms, they are immediately taken to the nurse’s office, Couch said. The student will be evaluated to determine the likelihood that they are positive for COVID-19, and if it is determined they may be positive, parents must pick up their student.

Couch said the procedure may vary based on the symptoms a student might be exhibiting. Parents may be required to take their student to their family physician, who will then determine if the student’s condition warrants a COVID-19 test.

If a student does require a COVID-19 test, the school will do contact tracing and follow protocol created in cooperation with the Kent County Health Department.

As students’ return to the classroom can pose a health risk for teachers, Couch said there are options in place for staff who might not feel comfortable being back in the building among students.

Couch said only “a handful” of teachers have been approved to teach remotely.

Despite the ongoing pandemic, both Graf and Rose praised their staff for their work as the schools navigated a return to some resemblance of normalcy.

“(The teachers) have been wonderful. I cannot say enough about my staff,” Rose said. “They’ve been working really hard. It’s a lot. It’s a lot of different things we’ve had to plan for, take into consideration.”

Figuring out schedules and finding space (with social distancing in mind) have been the most challenging aspects of the return to the school building, Rose said.

Graf said now that parents are seeing the COVID-19 protocols in practice, “more and more” are considering returning their students back to the school system.

In a prior Kent County Commissioners meeting, Couch reported enrollment in KCPS is down by about 70 students. Enrollment at the state level has also dipped likely due to COVID-19.

Still, Graf said teachers and students both seem to be happy to be back in the classroom.

“Our teachers were absolutely ecstatic for kids to be back in the building,” Graf said. “There’s an energy in the building again. (Teachers) are happy to see them. They missed them and there’s no replacement for face-to-face instruction.”

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