Jeff Helminiak / Peninsula Clarion
                                Shannon Dwyer teaches a socially distanced physical education class Tuesday at Skyview Middle School.

Jeff Helminiak / Peninsula Clarion Shannon Dwyer teaches a socially distanced physical education class Tuesday at Skyview Middle School.

Central peninsula students return to school

‘It felt like game day of the World Series’

Skyview Middle School principal Sarge Truesdell had been waiting for this day for a long time.

“I was so happy to see kids getting to be kids again,” Truesdell said. “I was so happy to see kids smile. I didn’t get to see kids smile right away, because they had masks on their faces, but I saw the looks on their faces.

“When they had their masks off at lunch and were 6 feet from their friends, I just stood back and watched. It was an awesome thing to be back in school.”

Tuesday, students returned to schools on the central Kenai Peninsula for the first time since March 5, when they left for spring break as the new coronavirus was quickly shuttering things across the world.

This school year started Aug. 24, but due to a high level of COVID-19 cases, the first two weeks were 100% remote learning on the central peninsula.

Tuesday, all of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District buzzed with the life of students again.

“The life they give the building is tremendous,” Natalie Kant, a school counselor in her 10th year at Skyview and 31st with the district, said. “It felt like game day of the World Series.”

Wild and crazy first day

Skyview hosts seventh and eighth graders. Truesdell said the first day students return to the building is normally hectic because half of the students are attending school there for the first time.

In a normal year, students get transition days in May and in August where they can tour the school, get their lockers, go through their schedules and navigate to their teachers’ classrooms. Truesdell said these transition days are important because most kids have just stayed in one classroom and not had lockers to this point.

The transition days were not possible this year due to the new coronavirus.

“Middle school can be a big transition, I think the largest transition we ask kids to make,” Truesdell said. “All of those factors make the first day wild and crazy. Then you throw in COVID-19, masks, cohorts, one-way traffic and stairways that only go down or up.

“Considering all of that, it was a pretty awesome day. It really was.”

Most seventh graders are accustomed to having just three or four buses roll up at their school. Skyview has 19.

“I don’t see a single kid that missed the bus or a kid sitting out there because his parents didn’t get him,” Truesdell said. “In a normal year, three or four kids miss the bus or the parents don’t make the pickup.”

Numbers in building drop

Truesdell said part of the reason for the smooth day was the drop in students at school. Skyview normally has 400 students, but is down to 300 students this year. About 38 are doing remote learning, so there were about 260 in the building Tuesday.

According to Truesdell, numbers dropped due to things like families wanting consistency, safety concerns and families not liking the district’s mask mandate. The principal said the kids in attendance Tuesday all complied with the mask mandate.

“Ultimately, the great thing about schooling in 2020 is there are a lot of options,” Truesdell said. “We want parents and kids to have options that let their students thrive. We want kids in the brick and mortar schools — the more kids here the better — but we still want kids and parents to do what’s best for them.”

New schedule for new coronavirus

Kant said that she hopes once parents understand how schools are operating, they will decide to come back. Skyview has upended its whole school day to mitigate the risk of the new coronavirus.

“We threw away our old schedule and started from scratch,” she said.

Both seventh and eighth grade are divided into two groups. Those four groups are further divided into four groups.

The result is students are only in contact with the same group of 20 students for the whole school year, with four separate bell schedules cutting down on the number of students in transition in the hallway. Even at lunch, the cafeteria is divided into four sections so the students can’t mix.

There also is a color-coded taping system in place on the cafeteria chairs so students in the first lunch period don’t sit in the same spot as students in the next lunch period. This gives the area time to be sanitized.

Truesdell, himself a graduate of Skyview High School, said one of the things he loved about middle school was beginning to hang around with kids from all the different elementary schools. He also started forming bonds with the class with which he would graduate high school.

“That part I don’t like at all,” Truesdell said of limiting contact to groups of 20. “But if somebody gets the virus in school, I’ve got a very good idea who that student has been in direct contact with. That’s important for the safety of the kids and for the safety of their loved ones who are maybe compromised.”

Utmost care is taken so students don’t mix. Arrows taped on the floor throughout the school assure traffic only flows one way, even to the point of stairways being one way. Groups of students don’t go anywhere without adult supervision. And kids leaving class to do something solo, like use the bathroom, sign a Google Doc that records where the student went and exactly what time the student was there.

Streamlining for parents

The number of school periods also has been cut from seven to five. This not only trims the time students spend transitioning in the hallways, but it also makes things easier in the event COVID-19 cases rise to high-risk level and schools return to 100% remote learning.

“The feedback we got from parents on remote learning is that the seven-day period is too hard,” Truesdell said.

All students have four subjects — language arts, math, science and social studies. The other period is a special subject in two-week increments — shop, art, physical education, and business information for seventh graders and career for eighth graders.

Truesdell said this change has asked a lot of his teachers.

Shelli Church has taught at Skyview since 1997. Since 2015, she has taught design, leadership, career and technology. Before that, she taught social studies. This year, she has had to go back to social studies.

“It’s been a major learning process getting up to speed on a new subject,” she said.

Truesdell said Skyview has three physical education teachers, and two had to go back to the classroom. Teachers hired just this summer to teach a certain subject have ended up teaching a different subject.

“I’m proud of my entire staff,” Truesdell said. “We laid out a plan and it changed a lot of people’s jobs. They stepped up, learned a new curriculum and made a move that’s best for kids and the plan we’re putting in place.”

With enrollment at Connections Homeschool swelling, Skyview recently lost a teacher to that program. That meant even Truesdell had to step into the classroom to teach careers.

“I haven’t had a class in 15 years,” he said.

Smooth transition from remote learning

The principal said one good thing about being in the classroom is he saw how quickly students transitioned from remote learning.

“You wouldn’t know it from being involved in class,” Truesdell said of the fact students hadn’t been in a class since March. “There were a lot of hands in the air. Kids were excited to be doing their thing. I didn’t feel like they didn’t know how to do school.”

When Truesdell became principal at then-Soldotna Middle School 10 years ago, his priority was to make sure parents and students could access all school materials at home.

That commitment has been key this year as all teachers are now on Canvas, a learning management program with assignments that come with a series of links, videos and Zoom sessions.

With all the lessons on Canvas, Church said it is easier to teach an in-person class while also tending to those who are learning remotely.

“It’s more we have to do,” Church said. “We always have to be aware of the online learner.”

Truesdell said Canvas will also make it easier for students and teachers to stay home when they are feeling any symptoms of illness. The school district has made a commitment to symptom-free schools this year.

Skyview has 150 Chromebooks checked out this year, creating workload for the secretaries but also showing how important remote learning has become.

Of course, Tuesday’s charged environment at Skyview also showed the limitations of even the best remote learning.

“It’s just easier teaching kids in person,” Church said. “When you’re on Zoom, it feels like you are talking to yourself. You don’t get immediate feedback.

“I’m excited. There will be a lot more energy — so much more energy.”

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