Students, teachers happy to be back in school as Rome district launches in-person, hybrid instruction

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It's "really nice to be coming to school....Everything seems like to it used to, besides the masks and social distancing," Bellamy Elementary School sixth-grader Logan Ellithorpe said this morning in his classroom while waiting for lessons to begin.

At Rome Free Academy, meanwhile, junior Abigail Aldrich was glad to be back too, commenting while waiting in the lobby to go to class that all-remote instruction has "been tough" and "I don't like it."

They were among Rome school district students returning to classrooms today, as the district resumed in-person instruction for general education for the first time since school buildings closed in mid-March due to COVID-19; besides about 128 special education/supported learning students who have been receiving in-person instruction since mid-September, the district's overall 5,000-plus students have been learning remotely.

The district completed the 2019-20 academic year in an all-remote format through June, and began the 2020-21 academic year in mid-September also as all-remote for general education before this week launching a hybrid instructional format; half of students who opt for in-person instruction are coming to school today and Tuesday while the other half will come Thursday and Friday, with remote instruction on the other days.

Students returned amid many precautions and safety protocols relating to COVID-19; their temperatures were checked on wrist-scanning devices when entering buildings, classroom seating was spaced for social distancing, and masks were required. Student transportation posed "a little bit of a challenge," said district Superintendent Peter C. Blake who explained that more families did not want busing than anticipated. It created "a lot of changes" including a "domino effect," he said, citing additional work for staff in a short period of time. Most buses arrived early today because of fewer students riding them than expected, he said. There also were some late bus arrivals including instances cited by parents online.

Administrators and teachers were glad to see students return, including at RFA and Bellamy for example.

Noting being able to "get to see their smiling faces," Bellamy Principal Mary (Molly) Mytych said having the students present "brings life and energy needed" within school. "Having them back" is "a real breath of fresh air."

Among various comments and observations at RFA and Bellamy:

• RFA — "We're very excited to have the kids back," said Principal Brian LeBaron, shortly before students began arriving around 7:15 a.m. for classes that began at 7:25 a.m. Noting the new routines in place, he added "at the end of the day it's about educating kids....We're excited to have them."

Of RFA's overall enrollment of about 1,600 for grades 9-12, LeBaron said about 600 were anticipated for in-person instruction today and Tuesday while a similar amount of different students were anticipated Thursday and Friday. The remainder were staying all-remote.

Junior Isabella Davis likewise was excited to be back, including being able to be "away from the house." She observed it would be easier to have "teachers in front of you" in-person, including for getting answers to questions. She expressed hope that perhaps the various COVID-19 restrictions could be eased further.

Teacher A.J. Spado observed, as students entered for his Regents earth science class covering multiple grade levels, that the return to school buildings is "good for the social aspects" so that students are "not just isolated." He said he would be teaching the in-person students at the same time as he was teaching the remote students, adding that overall instruction basically was not changing beyond the increased social interaction.

Just before Spado's class began, LeBaron spoke on the public-address system, offering a "welcome back" to students and commenting their entrance into the building went very smoothly. He said he appreciated students' cooperation, including for the temperature checks in which they did "a great job."

As he started his class, Spado spoke to students in the room while also speaking to those learning remotely, with the in-person students being reminded they need to bring computer devices with them because the classwork was being coordinated that way.

During the class, Spado took rocks out a tumbler and injected a little humor into the lesson about observing and analyzing the rocks. Of one rock, he said students could both "take it for granite" and "take it for granted," quipping "my jokes work in-person too." A few minutes later he commented the dark liquid in the tumbler looked like a "really bad" chocolate drink-mix. He encouraged students to make comparisons for what "something looks like," in "taking down observations" of the rocks.

• Bellamy — Before heading outside to help direct the incoming traffic including parents arriving to drop off students as well as the arriving buses, Mytych said "I could not be more excited" about students coming back.

"I think as a district and as a building...we have all the safety precautions and guidelines" to "make sure students have a safe and engaging" learning environment, she remarked. About 186 K-6 students at Bellamy were coming for in-person instruction today and Tuesday, with about 189 other students coming Thursday and Friday. The school's total enrollment, including some students staying all-remote, is about 481.

In the sixth-grade classroom of teachers Andrea Trevett and Josette Canarelli, student John Morris III said "I feel good" about returning and "it's nice to be back." It almost seemed sudden, he said, in the sense of feeling like "am I really coming back" and having felt that maybe it was never going to happen.

Trevett said she was "a little nervous" about being "not quite sure" about how the overall arrangements will proceed, emphasizing the need to "be flexible" and make adjustments. Teachers tend to like to have all their planning in place ahead of time, she said, and the current arrangements require "a big change in our thinking."

Trevett overall is "excited to see the faces" of students, after having seen them "on-screen" and it is nice see them in-person. She added "we'll get through it" including doing "what we need to do" to "make sure kids are safe and happy."

In kindergarten teacher Amanda Pacicca's classroom, she asked one arriving student to pull down the face mask so that she could see who the student was, exclaiming "I didn't even recognize you." It can be "really hard to recognize faces with these masks on," she said.

"I'm just happy to see them...I really am," Pacicca commented. "I'm glad they're back."

Blake expressed continued thanks to parents, staff and student for their patience in the situation overall amid the COVID-19 factors.

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