History in the making: an inside look at schools reopening during a pandemic

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KNOX, Ind. - How is my child going to learn in the middle of this pandemic? It's a question many Michiana parents are asking.

We thought the best way to answer the question is to embed one of our crews into various schools across Michiana and provide you a raw perspective of what these kids and parents will be going through.

On Thursday, our team takes a look inside Knox community schools, one of the first school districts to open to in-person learning in our area.

"My wife and I, we had probably a daily conversation about, okay, where are we at? What do we think we need to do? And it just sorts of started three months ago, we're like, okay, what are we going to do when they do decide to go back to school," Devan Wallen,  one parent said. “I have one son, he’s going to be 10 in 4th grade this year. Marshall. I have another son, he's, 9 no he’s 8, Silace, who’s going to be in 3rd grade this year.”

“I have one kid that’s still in school, Gunner Wagner and he’s going to be a senior this year," Rebekah Wagner, another parent said. “He's so ready. To get back to school, he misses it greatly. He's very active in sports.

“I’m ready to see everybody. We’ve all been couped up. Ready to see my friends," Gunner Wagner,  one student said.

"So he's just ready to get back to somewhat of a normal life as normal as it can be for, you know, the times that we're in," Rebekah Wagner said.

“The kids actually, before we left, in March, they were asking questions about it. So they knew they see it on tv, and they're aware of it. And they kind of almost want to, they want you to tell them how to be safe," Jamie Shireman, a 2nd-grade teacher at Knox Community Schools said.

“I told the boys, I think you're, I think you're going to be okay. I think this is something that we can get through. We're not wanting to back away from challenges, but at the same time, we're ones to use wisdom when we do encounter a situation," Wallen said.

“I don't want to live in a state of fear and I don't want him to either," Wagner said.

“We’re going to the high school," Gunner said on his way to school. “I’ll be a senior this year.”

Gunner's 9-minute drive was full of anxiety but excitement.

“I’d rather go to school and learn. I learn better that way," he said. “You don't know what could happen. The whole world knows that to anything can change just like that it all has. I’m praying they have sports because that’s a big part of my life. I love sports. I’m hoping this senior year is as normal as it can be.”

“It's been very challenging in terms of what we've been able to do and the thing that makes it the most challenging thing of all, is the fact that it's constantly changing. What we decided to do in June doesn't look anything like what we are planning on doing right now," Superintendent Dr. William Reichhart said.

"Last spring was very different than what we're going to be doing now. It was a lot of, we upload some work for them to do. You know, with all of it being new, it was more of a learning curve. And then now this year, we're doing more virtual learning. So the kids are actually going to be live on an iPad, and I'm going to be teaching to them and I'm going to get to interact with them while I'm teaching to kids in the room also," Kyle McCann, a 4th-grade teacher for Knox Community School said.

“If someone told me that we would be live-streaming when I first got hired 20 years ago, I never would have believed him. I would have said, no, you're crazy. But it is. It's like part of history. I mean, going from teaching and then going strictly online. I mean, it's a big jump," Shireman said.

“We currently have about 400 students who have signed up for the online version, that's just about 22%," Dr. Reichhart said. "We have parents, I have a list here in front of me, where they're calling today wanting to change from one option to the other. So it's very fluid. And I would expect that.”

“It's going to be different, definitely challenging to make sure that we make all those connections," Shireman said.

“Making sure that those kids are getting the same exact education that they would be getting if they were sitting in the room," McCann said. "It's the tough part is, yeah, I'm gonna see them on the computer. But, you know, it'd be 22 little boxes while I'm giving my big lesson. And you don't get that aha moment when you see it in the kids. I like, oh, I get it, or the, you know, where they kind of fade away because they're not understanding it. That's really the hardest part.”

Teaching is not only about making sure kids are learning but that they are safe doing so inside these halls. School officials tell me this school year will look much different – everything from mask requirements to staggered lunches to separated classrooms and play spaces.

“You'll see at the middle school, they actually have put red tape down the hallways to try and keep kids on one side of the hallway going one direction, one side of the hallway going the other direction, with red x's in the middle so they don't park in the middle of that zone. One of the biggest changes we've limited lockers at both the middle school and the high school," Dr. Reichhart said.

“We're make sure we're social distancing the desks I have what I call a preparing clean session, which is five minutes before. My big chunks of the day where the kids in here they're washing their hands are going to get extra hand sanitizer and those kids at home, that's when they'll be logging on their computers," McCann said.

“We talked to them about like the hula hoop and making sure that we're six feet apart and washing hands, we're going to show them how to wash hands and for how long," Shireman said. "So we're going to spend the first couple weeks just reviewing what to do and how to be safe at school."

“We didn't know, didn't know what to expect. It's something that we've never encountered before. You know, and we tried to listen to experts tried to use our own discernment and judgment on things. But just a little hesitant. But I think the most important thing for us was, we just feel like our kids need to be around other kids. They need to experience social situations, they need to see some sort of structure in their lives," Wallen said.

“We definitely tossed a few things back and forth. But this being his senior year, we felt it was important that he finished out in the school setting. We're doing everything we can to just keep them healthy. And, you know, yeah, deal with whatever you know, comes," Wagner said. “I think it's very important. I mean, the kids get to be in school for such a short period in their life and that's where you build a lot of you know of your relationships.”

When asked whether McCann is worried about his safety being a teacher around all these younger kids who could be irresponsible, he said not really.

“Yeah, it's, I mean, it's definitely in your mind, but I think our janitorial staff, and everyone here you drive by anytime there's somebody in here cleaning and they do such a great job and everyone's just kind of working together to make sure it's a safe as it's going to be. I feel just I feel safer in here than I would in a store," McCann said.

“I'm worried that we might get people that test positive for it. I'm worried that, you know, the masks might cause issues with, you know, just sending behind a mask. Hopefully, it won't be all day but even for part of the day. I mean, it's definitely going to be an adjustment to a lot of kids.”

“If somebody gets sick, how is that going to be handled? If a teacher gets sick, how will be handled," Wallen said. "My biggest fear would be somebody being sick from this and that being a lifelong or death situation.”

“When we get a positive case, what will happen is we will take and isolate that student or staff member, they will be sent to our school nurse who will be garbed up, they are isolated from even our clinics, we have designated rooms in each of our buildings. But we will then send them to their health care provider where that health care provider will have to make a decision to test or not to test and then that will be coordinated with our school nurse before they can return back to work or back to school," Dr. Reichhart said. “We will be able to contact trace where these students have been because we have seating charts in classrooms. We have seating charts on our buses, and so we will be able to. If somebody tests positive, the first thing we want to do is try and contain it.”

So what will our schools look like going forward? Will masks and social distancing while learning be the new normal?

“Now that we've gone online, I think it's going to stick around for a while," Shireman said.

“I do think that things are gonna change. As far as you know, maybe not everything, but some things like social distancing. I think that's just always going to be there now," McCann said.

“This year it’s kind of crazy with all the COVID stuff, having to wear a mask and everything," Gunner said. "It is what it is, as long as we can have a decent normal school year, yeah I’ll wear a mask.”

"I don't think that, you know, fear is necessarily a good thing to do. You have to be cautious, but you can't walk around life fearful of everything," Wallen said.

Each week we’re taking an inside look at schools in our coverage area, telling the unique stories from all different kinds of perspectives.

So follow us along this journey right alongside student sand parents navigating school during a pandemic.


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