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Face Masks, Plastic Dividers Part Of Reopening At This Elementary School


In January, teacher Kamaren Cross slapped high-fives with her third graders and let them gather close together on a rug in front of the classroom. Sometimes they’d even perch on classroom yoga balls.

“I used to have my students sitting in groups, because I really prefer group work, that way students are able to interact with one another,” Cross said. “Of course we didn't have these face masks.”

A week ago, wearing a black face mask with a flower print, Cross stood in her Chapelwood Elementary classroom preparing to add signs and decorations to the walls. This is her fifth year at MSD of Wayne Township.

“Yep, I have less seats. As the desks are spaced out a lot more,” Cross said. “All my flexible seating has been moved out because we're not able to have any shared surfaces or anything like that. And then, of course, I'm going to be putting down arrows and things like that for my students to know, like, which directions and things to walk and where to line up.”

As schools across Indiana start to reopen, educators are coming to grips with new safety and health requirements that drastically change how they teach. Reports of students and staff testing positive for COVID-19 are also forcing school leaders to pivot plans.

MSD of Wayne Township, on the west of Indianapolis, will open Wednesday, Aug. 12, with full-time, in-person instruction for preschool through 5th grade. Students in grades 6 through 12 will follow a hybrid schedule, part-time virtual and part-time in the classroom.

Students will also have the option to stay home and use the virtual-only Wayne@Home program.

Kamaren Cross has taught at Chapelwood Elementary for five years. Last school year she was named the building's teacher of the year. (Eric Weddle/WFYI News)

The majority of Wayne students opted to return to classrooms that will look significantly different than they did when the buildings closed in March due to the pandemic.

Cross expects 23 students, a handful fewer than last year, to show up -- all wearing masks -- Wednesday morning. When they walk in, they will see a red sign hanging from a bulletin board that reads: Safety First.

“Just letting them know why we're doing it and that we're doing it to protect everyone else around them,” said Cross, the school’s most recent teacher of the year recipient.

Safety steps include:

  • Students will have assigned seats and all sit facing the same direction.
  • Desks are spaced apart, by at least three feet to six feet, as recommended by American Association of Pediatrics.
  • Hand washing and pumping hand sanitizer to rub on hands will be encouraged throughout the day.
  • Drinking fountains are closed, so water bottles will be available in addition to the milk cartons during lunch
  • In the classroom, paper will be scarce or nonexistent. To reduce possible spread of the virus, most classwork will be done on computers and graded electronically.
  • Classrooms will stick together throughout the day. For lunch  they’ll eat together. For recess, they’ll have predetermined areas to play. This technique is called a pod or a cohort.

Keeping students in a cohort is one way the county health department can make it easier to contact trace if someone tests positive for COVID-19.
“Our paraprofessionals and our special education teachers normally would go from room to room,” Cross said. “This year, they're pretty much assigned to specific classes.”

All of these changes limit the methods Cross used to redirect students, express excitement and praise success. Now, she said, she’ll need to communicate louder in class -- and more often virtually with students and their families.

“I'm going to try to be more high energy than I normally am -- to get them just excited about learning,” she said. “Also, I'm going to be in more. I'm going to be communicating with parents much more, I feel like, because with them not being able to come in this year and you know, get a feel for the room and things like that. I'm gonna do my best to communicate with them, even more than I would have in previous years.

“And I’m going to be patient. All of us are going to be patient.”

Cross is aware of COVID-19 cases reported in other school districts and cities, from Avon to Elwood, and the ongoing political fights about reopening and funding, but she said she’s not focused on that.

“I'm a little bit anxious because this is totally new. But more than anything, I'm just excited to be back in the classroom with my students. We're going to learn as we go, we're going to be as safe as we can,” Cross said. “The school has done a lot. Our district has done a lot as far as providing us with safety measures that will keep us all safe. So of course, I'm anxious but I'm more excited than anything.”

Asking For And Giving ‘Grace’

When class begins Wednesday at Chapelwood, Principal Terri Matthews will welcome around 700 students in grades Pre-K to 6th into the building. That’s around 200 students less than last year. Then, the B-rated school enrolled 54 percent Black students, 22 percent Hispanic students and 14 percent white students, according to state data.

The school is part of a campus near West 10th Street and North Girls School Road that includes Ben Davis High School and the Chapel Hill middle school.

Matthews knows the 60-plus teachers at her school are excited to be back in the classroom but also uneasy and nervous, whether about the new policies in place or the concern over contracting COVID-19.

“I've lived on the philosophy of grace here lately. Just making sure I'm extending grace, because I understand that, you know,” she said. “There are some staff fears, and there’s family fears.”

In addition to grace, Matthews said the word “pivot” describes her attitude the past few months.

“The key word here has been pivot. So every time I get a new bit of information, I say, ‘OK, back to the drawing board, what are we going to do?’” she said. “For me, the priority has been making sure that my staff feel safe and supported, and that we are letting kids into a building where they are safe, that we're addressing the social emotional needs that they may have been away."

Matthews said she is focused on guidelines set forth by the district and the Marion County Public Health Department. Those include making sure each classroom has an abundant supply of hand sanitizer and wipes for staff and students.

Pens for visitors at the front desk of Chapelwood Elementary on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (Eric Weddle/WFYI News)

The district purchased 5,000 gallons of sanitizing fluid for cleaning rooms and 1,000 buckets, with 450 sanitizing towels contained in each, among other personal protective equipment like face shields and disposable facemasks.

Last week, finishing touches and protocols were still being finalized, such as adding dots to carpeted areas so students know how far to stand apart.

“And looking at how many students we’re going to allow into the restroom at a time,” Matthews said. “And then the same thing in the cafeteria. We’ve literally taken out half of the chairs so that we can make sure that kids are safely apart.”

The district bought 8,000 plastic dividers to keep students and staff separated from one another, when the distancing guidelines can’t be followed.

A large plastic sheet greets visitors to the school’s front office where Matthew’s office is located. District policy now requires all visitors, no matter their age, to wear a mask in the office. Volunteers are no longer scheduled to help in the schools.

Matthews said, despite the antiseptic atmosphere, she wants the students and families to still feel warmth from teachers and staff.

“When our students arrive on that first day, they may not be able to see that smile, since we're wearing our mask, but hopefully through our eyes,” she said. “It shows that, and through our reactions, when they see us our body language will show them that we're excited to have them.”

When class starts Wednesday, Cross says the first day will be about rules and safety in the classroom. But it will also be just like other first days.

“So really, that first day is just going to be just--  welcome each other -- about welcoming each other back, and just enjoying each other, and just learn,” she said.

Personal Responsibility

This summer, Wayne Township Superintendent Jeff Butts expected the other 10 Marion County schools to offer in-person instruction and open on their previously scheduled start date.

Then MSD Washington Township Schools became one of the first districts in the state to reverse course and offer virtual-only classes. Soon after, Indianapolis Public Schools delayed its start of in-person and remote classes by two weeks.

Days later, the Wayne Township Classroom Teachers' Association issued a letter to the Wayne School Board asking for virtual-only learning for the first nine weeks of school.

Instead,  Wayne Township school board approved a two-week delay, to give schools enough time to prepare safety measures, but it did not change the in-person reopening.

The teacher’s union, in a statement to WFYI News, said the letter to the board was in “no way a rebuke of the plan outlined by Wayne Township for the return to school” and the district has created a plan that provides as much safety as possible. Rather, the association stated the “inability to social distance on the bus and in our classrooms was the determining factor for our request.”

The Wayne teachers are not alone in their concern. A survey from NPR/Ipsos found 82 percent of K-12 teachers are concerned about returning to in-person teaching this fall; and two-thirds want to teach primarily online.

Butts, the superintendent, said he understands the concerns. Part of increasing safety, he said during a WFYI Facebook Live discussion, is for teachers, staff and families to practice all health recommendations when outside school.

“It is all of our responsibilities, for all of us to practice those safe practices that keep us from getting the virus and protecting others from getting the virus,” he said.

The outside of Chapelwood Elementary School near West 10th Street and North Girls School Road, on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020 (Eric Weddle/WFYI News)

Enforcing students wearing masks was one of the first issues the district tackled, Butts said, as it created a reopening plan. Gov. Eric Holcomb issued an executive order requiring masks in schools for students in grades three and above.

At Wayne, students will not face suspension or detention for not wearing or refusing to wear a mask.

“We will have progessive discussions with students and their parents and work through the process,” Butts said, if a student continues to break the mask policy. “But eventually it becomes a safety issue when it is a chosen behavior.”

The district’s virtual-only, learn from home curriculum, Wayne@Home will be available for all students. It also is likely the best option, Butts said, for those who don’t want to wear a mask in class.

By The Numbers

Here are some of the supplies purchased by MSD Wayne Township to prepare for in-person learning:

  • 60,000 disposable face masks
  • 17,000 cloth masks provided by the state
  • 14,000 computer devices for at-home learning
  • 8,000 plastic dividers
  • 5,000 gallons of sanitizing fluid for cleaning rooms
  • 3,000 face shields for teachers
  • 1,000 buckets with 450 sanitizing towels in each
  • A foaming sanitize device for every single classroom
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