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Here's A Hint Of What In-Person Schooling Will Look Like During Pandemic

On a recent morning of summer school, students were met at the entrance of Gore Elementary School in Jennings with thermal temperature scanners. 

It’s just one sign of the new reality of school during a pandemic, along with masks, social distancing and alternating school days.

Jennings School District, which educates about 2,500 students just north of St. Louis, is in its second week of piloting an in-person model it will roll out for the school year next month. It’s one of the first schools in the region to welcome any students and staff back into its buildings on a regular basis.

Two groups of 50 students each, in grades five through 12, come to Gore Elementary on alternating days for enrichment programs including computer coding, building design and chess. When school resumes in August, Jennings will use an A-B schedule for students in fourth-grade and up to keep school at reduced-capacity. Preschoolers through third-grade will attend every day. Families can also choose to have their children educated fully online or convince the district their older kids need to be in school every day.

A student's temperature is taken July 13, 2020, morning upon arriving at Gore Elementary School in Jennings.
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio

Students have to fill out a daily health questionnaire before arriving and then have their temperature taken. Each student is given a mask if they don’t bring one. 

“It’s really going well,” said Vernice Hicks-Prophet, who oversees elementary schools for the district.

Teachers nationwide and in St. Louis in recent days have voiced their concerns about the health of themselves and their students as pressure mounts from government leaders to reopen schools. The experiment at Gore Elementary, even on a small level with older students, shows the challenges that lie ahead for schools as they try to safely do that amid a raging pandemic.

On the day St. Louis Public Radio visited, a custodian frequently lapped the hallways with a spray bottle of disinfectant; hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes were scattered around rooms; and students wiped down computer keyboards or wore rubber gloves to play chess. 

“This is something that we have to work with and make work for us,” Hicks-Prophet said. “We’re working this program so we can get all of the kinks out of it when students return in August.”

Gloves and cleaning supplies were scattered throughout Gore Elementary School. The school has welcomed students back inside for the first time since March.
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio

Yet while chairs were spaced far apart for eating, not all classrooms were set up for kids to be separated by at least six feet. Students aren’t supposed to take masks off except for sips of water from their own cups or bottles, but a few kids stopped to drink from a fountain while moving through the hall.

Students mostly complied with the mask rule, though masks didn’t always stay on perfectly over their noses and mouths. One teacher was not wearing a mask.

Superintendent Art McCoy, in response to the infractions, said it will take time to develop habits around the protocols.

"We're not expecting perfect. That's why we're starting early," he said, adding that the goal will be to balance enforcement while maintaining a positive learning environment, all while keeping the number of COVID-19 cases as low as possible.

The tables in teacher Marc Reid’s computer lab were spread as far apart as possible, with just one computer on each table. 

He was ready and willing to come back to school and teach, saying “since we have a lot of safeguards in place, it made me feel very comfortable in doing so.”

Sometimes it’s hard to hear students’ questions when their voices are muffled by their masks, he said.

Eating breakfast and lunch 12 feet apart has been “not great,” said Jada Randle, thinking back to the experience an hour or so earlier. “It’s boring.”

“You just have to sit away from people,” the 10-year-old added, emphasizing her displeasure by stretching out the “away” in her answer.

Not many kids said they wanted to come to school, including Jada, but after being stuck inside since March, she “just wanted to get out of the house.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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Ryan is the education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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