It was quiet.
Not your typical hustle and bustle of chattering students showing off new outfits, sharing summertime stories and class schedules. Instead, everyone – teachers and students alike – seemed nervous.
“It’s a really hard thing to put a name to, because it was the first time I ever felt that. Even though there were kids and people in the building and it should’ve been filled with that spirit and that energy of the first day of school, everybody was very hesitant and tentative and not sure what to expect,” said Marc Vendetti, a sixth grade English teacher at Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School. “We were all coming into something absolutely brand new.”
Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the new school year brought a number of changes to Lyme-Old Lyme schools: Students and staff wear masks, the desks are in rows, spaced six feet apart and facing forward, teachers no longer move about the classroom.
“We removed a lot of the extraneous furniture, so honestly the classrooms look a bit barren,” Vendetti said. Almost 1950s style. “It feels a little different. When you have a discussion, you want to be able to see people’s faces, but you can’t,” he said. “The students are just looking at the back of each other’s heads.”
Aside from the strangeness, the students seem by and large happy to be back.
“I definitely wanted to come back. I was kind of wanting to see people and know that other people were in the classroom with me,” said Simon Karpinski, an eighth-grade student at Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School. “During quarantine, I missed the people and the interaction with others in the classroom the most.”
Getting used to washing your desk at the end of every class, frequent hand-sanitizing and one-way traffic in the hallways has been an adjustment, Karpinski said.
All the changes – especially the constant cleaning and the masks, “were a little bit concerning the first day, but it’s pretty easy at this point,” he said.
Before students returned, a key concern discussed by teachers and administrators was the emotional toll the pandemic might have taken on their students. So for the first few weeks of class, the schools have placed an added emphasis on social-emotional skill development and on connecting students in need with counselors.
“Our school counselor met with the entire sixth grade yesterday during social studies. Every student was able to share their feelings, and if they needed to speak with someone, we set that up,” said Mark Ambruso, principal of the middle school.
He said that the school counselor, and an additional counselor hired this year for additional support, will be meeting with the seventh and eighth graders later this week and next.
According to Karpinski, very few students were feeling the stress or were overwhelmed by the new precautions.
“It felt like 99 percent of the people were just excited to get back to the school atmosphere,” he said.
Some aspects to the typical school day have been completely altered to allow Lyme-Old Lyme students to return to classroom instruction, rather than to a hybrid model — combining in-person and distance learning — that has been adopted by most districts across Connecticut, including Region 4, Old Saybrook and East Lyme.
Indoors, lunch looks a little bit like Beauty and the Beast: two students to each 8-foot long table. Recess has been canceled for middle schoolers and the high school class schedule has been changed to just four, 90-minute periods per day to reduce the amount of passing time. During classes students are not permitted to leave their desks without permission, and only one student can leave a classroom at a time. In elementary school, students are no longer mingling with any students outside of their individual classroom.
“The 90-minute classes are really long and sometimes it’s hard to stay focused, but it’s much better than being at home on zoom calls all day,” said Fiona Frederiks, a senior at Lyme-Old Lyme High School. “It was really hard to get used to wearing a mask and everything on the first day, but I would just so much rather be in school than at home.”
Two weeks into classes, the transition back has been less painful than expected.
“I can’t say we won’t have hurdles in the future, but right now we haven’t had anything we didn’t expect,” Neviaser said.
There has been far less resistance from students than Superintendent Ian Neviaser had expected.
“One of the big concerns was the ability of our students to wear masks, but that has not been a concern at all,” he said. “It has not even been a problem at pre-k.”
Neviaser said the greatest hurdle the school district has faced has been the instruction for the 6 percent of students who have opted to learn remotely this fall.
“For students who have opted to be a remote learner every day there have been some audio issues where they couldn’t hear the teacher’s voice,” Neviaser said.
The problem was solved by upgrading the sound systems in every classroom and by having teachers wear microphones.
In contrast to the real-time instruction of students participating in a hybrid model, Lyme-Old Lyme students learning from home need not participate in real time, and each teacher – at the middle and high school level – records just one of each course they teach daily.
Photos courtesy of Lyme-Old Lyme schools. Reporter Julia Werth followed best practices for COVID-19 in interviews hosted by the district outside of school.