The hallways of middle schools and high schools in Wake and Durham counties are filling up again with students who had been at home taking all, or mostly all, online courses for the past year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Thursday was the first day of any in-person instruction since March 2020 for most Durham middle and high school students. They’re returning under a mix of in-person and online classes instead of getting daily in-person instruction.
In neighboring Wake County, Thursday was the first day of Plan A daily in-person instruction for traditional-calendar middle and high school students in 13 months. Previously, schools had operated under a hybrid of in-person and online classes that had kept class sizes down to maintain physical distancing.
“It is really, really joyful to have the kids in the hall and more kids in class,” Elena Ashburn, principal of Broughton High School in Raleigh, said in an interview Thursday. “You get the joy of the kids hustling and bustling around. It feels like a real school day, a real school experience.”
Elementary schools in Wake and Durham are already offering daily in-person classes. Durham made the switch back to in-person classes as a result of a statewide reopening law requiring school districts to offer in-person learning.
Trying to get back to normal
Students in both Wake and Durham Public Schools are still seeing some signs of the COVID impact. They’re required to wear face masks and to try to minimize physical contact with classmates and teachers.
“We’re a little nervous because we’ve not done this in a while,” Marlin Jones, a history teacher at Broughton, said in an interview Thursday. “Our biggest goal is to make people feel comfortable. You know, try to social distance as much as we can.
“But what I really want to do is sort of get to a normal school as best as possible.”
But many teachers are still having to juggle simultaneously teaching both in-person students and online students. Wake and Durham still have virtual programs for students who don’t feel comfortable returning for in-person classes.
Many students are also eating lunch in classrooms and outdoors instead of the cafeteria to try to provide physical distancing.
More crowded classes in Wake
The switch to Plan A is leading to bigger in-person classes in Wake. Previously, middle and high school students had been split into three groups with only one section on campus at a time for in-person classes to maintain 6 feet of distancing.
Under Plan A, only 3 feet of distancing is required, so all the non-Virtual Academy students are on campus at the same time.
“That is what we are telling our students: To wait 6 feet apart,” Ashburn said. “But we know in Plan A, given the number of students here and our facility needs, it’s not always possible to be 6 feet apart.”
At Broughton, 60% of the school’s 2,062 students are taking in-person classes. It’s one of the highest percentages in the school district.
Will Hardesty, a senior at Broughton, said his classes have gone from having six or fewer in-person students to 20 or more students. Hardesty, the student body president, said he saw students Thursday he hadn’t seen in more than a year.
“It feels really good to get back and to see them and just to be back at Broughton and be in another learning environment,” Hardesty said.
Durham is sticking with Plan B to maintain 6 feet of distancing in middle and high schools.
As part of the move to Plan A, Wake discontinued the practice of requiring students and school employees to pass daily temperature checks and health screenings to be allowed on campus. Durham is continuing the screenings, even though they’re no longer required by the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Schools look to end year strong
The switch to more in-person classes is occurring as schools enter their final nine weeks of classes.
Hardesty said it’s sad that seniors weren’t able to do more in their final year of high school.
“It’s not the senior year that I wanted to have, but I’m glad that we were able to have the opportunity to come back to school and just experience the last few months,” Hardesty said.
Seeing more students back on campus has made Jones, the history teacher, realize how much they had lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. He is glad that things are finally getting back to normal at school.
“In a lot of ways this is like I would say our first step back to real life, a first step back to what I call real teaching and learning,” Jones said.