Throughout Watkins Memorial High School there is a hum — of teachers teaching, of students learning.
Between lessons, the noise increases as teenagers switch classrooms — voices raised, laughter and hundreds of pairs of sneakers in hallways.
For millions of families in the United States, this is a reminder of how things were a year ago before pandemic lockdowns or a hoped-for future was still too far away to see clearly.
But in this suburb of Columbus, Ohio, the school district has made in-person education a reality for all who want it since the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.
“It’s been amazing,” said Alisha Sleeper, a K-12 math instructional coach for the Southwest Licking Local School District and vice president of the local teachers’ union.
Everyone wears a mask and the narrower halls are one-way-only. But teachers are able to move around the classrooms and students can easily ask questions and see their friends, in the flesh, in school, five days a week.
Principal Melissa Ladowitz said she thought there would be different challenges to getting her high school back in person amid fear that older children were more susceptible to catching and spreading coronavirus, and with more national focus on the younger grades.
“High schoolers typically have a lot more freedom than students in the elementary level, but we knew that we could teach them the new routines and procedures,” she said.
But even she was surprised at how well it went, even with staff demonstrating, modeling and enforcing the wearing of masks, keeping their distance and so on.
“They follow those routines,” Ladowitz said of her students. “We were astounded with how well.”
CDC guidelines mirrored — and overwritten
The push to reopen the Southwest Licking schools began several months ago, when a summertime survey of parents found 70% of them wanted their children back at school.
Schools superintendent Kasey Perkins said once they had that mandate, they had to figure out how to make it work, and they partnered with local health officials to make a plan.
Some protocols mirrored those in recent guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as masking, cleaning and contact tracing.
But there are no new ventilation systems — instead more doors are opened and hallways made one-directional — and, critically, the health team said 3 feet of distance between desks would suffice if students were masked, half the CDC recommendation of 6 feet.
That decision initially drew some skepticism, especially from teachers like Sleeper.
“In the fall, I didn’t know what to expect. The guidance was 6 feet and here we are going with 3 feet,” she said. “I was scared.”
Six months later, Sleeper’s mind is eased.
“The spread is not there,” she said of coronavirus infections. “We just set our expectations and the children have followed it, and it’s been fantastic. You get to middle school and high school, and you think that there’s going to be this defiance…What we’ve found is they want to be in school and they are happy to follow our guidance and controlled environment.”
The easing of space requirements was critical across the district. At Watkins Middle School, which has the largest student body of about 1,000 children, they’ve turned every available space into a classroom for the 870 or so who have returned.
Superintendent Perkins said there have been some students and staff who have tested positive for Covid-19 but not one case that has been traced back to being contracted at school.
“I believe it’s because they wear their mask and they do so diligently,” she said.
Facing fear of the unknown
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has mandated that all schools offer in-person learning by Monday and is offering vaccines for all teachers.
Sleeper knows it will be hard for teachers to return. “I have had a lot of teachers in the district who were opposed in the beginning of the year and not because we don’t love kids, but because there was that real feeling they themselves were going to get sick.”
What’s made the difference for her is seeing what has happened with the protocols set by the district and their enforcement.
“The only way to see it is to live through it. And I know that’s hard ’cause you have to get over that fear to get into the classroom,” Sleeper said.
Perkins saw that fear in her district’s staff and asked them to trust her.
“That’s a hard thing, and it was hard for our staff,” she said. “I think if you ask them now, they would tell you it was the best decision we did.”
And she has an offer for those still nervous in other districts.
“Come to our schools, walk through and see our one-way hallways. See our transition times,” she said. “Take a look at our classrooms, see our cafeteria, look what we’ve done that we’ve had success with. So you can model it for yourself.”