Smiling eyes, bright and colorful masks, and creative methods to online learning are just a few indicators that the school year is off to a different start than traditional years. As South Arbor Charter Academy approaches their two-week mark since beginning the 2020-21 school year, students and staff are getting accustomed to their new normal. With about half of their students learning via the in-person hybrid model and half learning remotely at home, Kim Bondy, principal at South Arbor shared that things are going better than expected.
“It’s nice to see the students and staff again,” said Bondy with a few tears in her eyes. “It’s been great, just being able to make that face-to-face connection to people. Seeing everyone has been awesome.”
Bondy has been intentional about helping students feel comfortable as they return to the building, one new safety guideline she has focused on is making sure students feel confident wearing their masks. When students climb out of their parents’ cars in the morning, Bondy points out the fun characters and patterns that she sees. “I saw a cute mask the other day,” reflected Bondy. “One student came in wearing a mask with a big batman logo and it was cool because it just fit his personality.”
Parents also have shared that they appreciate that she is noticing their kids’ masks. A piece of advice that she shared with her parents ahead of the first day centered on allowing kids to show their personality when it comes to mask choices. “Kids are more likely to wear their masks if it’s something they really like,” she said.
Teachers throughout the school also are making adjustments to help their students adapt, including those who are teaching in-person and those who are teaching remote students. One staff member reflected on her experience adjusting to wearing masks after attending a staff professional development. Ms. Ali Hess, Young 5s teacher at South Arbor, realized that she struggled to recognize her coworkers because she had only seen their eyes and a mask. She shared that she was concerned that her young students would also struggle in the first several weeks back with not knowing what their classmates look like.
“As I realized how intimidating and scary that might feel for them, I started to think of how I could bridge that gap for my students,” said Hess. “I came up with the idea of using their headshot pictures where all the kids could view them daily.”
To make everyone more comfortable, Hess snapped smiling photos of each student to display on their desks and cubbies. The 8” by 10” photos are featured on a wall in the classroom and serve as a “signature” for their classroom contract. “This helps our young learners identify their spaces and allows their classmates to see each other without masks on,” said Bondy.
“They have responded very positively to the chance to see themselves and classmates, and I also included myself with their headshots so they can continue to see my face without a mask as well,” said Hess.
Changes to the physical learning space are not the only adjustments teachers are making this year. Ms. Stacy Garin, third-grade teacher at South Arbor, is among the teachers who are teaching students virtually. She created what Bondy described as a “gaming lair” from which she will lead her students. This creative space features three screens, one displaying her presentation, one to see her students, and one with Blocksi. To make learning more fun and accessible to her students and families, Ms. Garin also created an online “Bitmoji” classroom, which includes announcements, a link to the Parent Portal, and more.
“I have always loved using technology in my teaching, so being the virtual third-grade teacher gives me the opportunity to learn some new skills to help enhance learning for my students and pass on my love of technology to them!” said Garin. “I think with virtual teaching, the biggest transition has been learning how to connect with students through a screen. We have morning and afternoon meetings daily and use that time to get to know each other, build relationships, and make connections. It’s my favorite part of our day together!”
All South Arbor’s students, whether learning in-person or remotely, have been very open to the new norms. “The kids are very resilient and quick to catch on,” Bondy shared. “They see what’s happening and adjust so quickly.”
As the school continues to adapt to new guidelines and learning expectations, Bondy shared that she’s proud of how her school community is adapting to change. While there have been a few bumps along the way, families are handling both learning models with grace. She recommends families who may have additional questions related to remote learning visit the NHA Virtual Learning Hub as it highlights a plethora of valuable information.
She also recommends that students learning from home stick to a structured schedule. “Kids are used to being on a schedule,” she said. “Students, regardless of age, crave structure. Being sure to have a schedule for the day will help set them up for success.” Bondy also encourages students who are learning remotely to speak up in their classes if they have a question. She wants students to know that they have the freedom to message their teacher if they have a question. “Practice communicating with the teacher,” she stated. “Students need to feel confident asking for assistance just as they would in a traditional classroom.”
Bondy reflected that this transition is the first step in getting back to normal. She noted that some may be comfortable being back in-person and others may choose virtual and both choices are okay. Having the ability to interact with others is a major part of childhood development. She is just content that her students can interact once again and continue learning how to be appropriate and friendly.
“The biggest thing I hope is that everyone continues to be healthy and safe and follow the rules,” she said. “Remember the choices we make influence the community around us. We all need to make sure we are being healthy and safe in and out of school so we can all continue to be together.”