Familiar but different setting greets Chandler students The Chandler Arizonan

Familiar but different setting greets Chandler students

Familiar but different setting greets Chandler students
City News
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By Kevin Reagan
Arizonan Staff Writer

Adriana Robertson stood in front of a class of kindergarteners, ready to point to a chart of the alphabet.

The Conley Elementary School teacher gestured toward one letter and waited for her students to shout out the answer she’s looking for.

“A – Apple,” the kindergarteners yelled in unison before moving on.

It was the type of scene that routinely gets played out in Conley and other Chandler Unified classrooms during any normal school year – except this school year has been far from normal. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed every aspect of public education and schools like Conley have had to make several adjustments to protect teachers and students from the virus.

Robertson’s class of 20 kindergartners can’t just recite the alphabet the same as their predecessors did in years past; they must now repeat their ABCs while wearing a face mask and standing several feet apart from each other.

This particular day in Robertson’s class was Sept. 15, nearly six weeks after the Chandler Unified School District’s school year officially began – and only the second day her kindergartners have been inside her classroom.   

The CUSD Governing Board started the year with online learning for all students, and on Sept. 2 voted 3-2 to begin a “rolling return” to classrooms, starting with K-2 students last week, grades 3-5 this week and junior high and high schools reopening Oct. 13.

The board’s decision gave Conley’s staff less than two weeks to be ready to teach hundreds of students after classrooms sat empty for nearly six months.

Principal Lisa Shore said the quick turnaround didn’t intimidate Conley’s teachers because they had already started reopening preparations several months prior to the board’s decision.

“We’ve been doing this since June,” Shore said. “We’ve known our plan. We were just waiting for the board to say, ‘Go for it.’”

The entire campus has been plastered with numbers on sidewalks, desks and cafeteria tables to guide students on where to sit or stand at any given time.

Each student is assigned a number within their respective class that they use to know where to stand in line while walking across campus or where they must sit at lunch time. 

Shore said this numbering system is necessary so the school can quickly track a student’s whereabouts and who they’re coming into close contact with throughout the school day.   

“So that if somebody did have a COVID-19 positive test — we know who they’re around at all times,” the principal said.

The ability to perform contact tracing quickly is one way that CUSD and virtually all other school districts have planned for in case a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19. By quickly identifying people an infected individual has been in contact with, officials can try to contain virus spread.

Aside from using numbers for identification purposes, Conley Elementary must regularly keep count of how many students are congregating in the same space throughout the campus.

Bathrooms can only accommodate a couple of students at one time — meaning students may have to line up outside and wait for a classmate to exit before entering.

Every student has a badge used to hang outside the bathroom door to signify how many students are using the restroom at any given time.

The playground has been divided into four quadrants and students can only play within the space their class is assigned on any given day. 

Class sizes must also be monitored to ensure not too many students are stuffed into one classroom.

Shore only has so many teachers she can use on campus because the district still needs several instructors for the Chandler Online Academy.

Conley currently has five teachers working in the online school, the principal said, and that is subject to change as the school year continues to progress.

After the second quarter starts on Oct. 13, Conley is expecting to welcome back an additional 45 students who elected to continue learning online for the rest of the first quarter. Another 100 students may not return until January.

For every student returning to campus, administrators have to examine how their presence impacts classroom ratios.

Most of Conley’s classrooms can safely accommodate about 20 students and any number exceeding that limit could result in desks not having enough room to be safely spaced apart.

Shore said if class sizes get too large, the school would have to decide whether it must abandon social-distancing guidelines and push desks closer together to allow for more pupils.   

“Either we have to go back to normal or I need more teachers,” the principal said.

The school’s fourth grade classes have up to 27 enrolled students, which prompted administrators to create a rotation system that could keep the classroom numbers under 20 for most of the school day. 

Shore said they had the staffing to create a separate classroom where a handful of fourth graders can rotate in and out for science and history lessons.

Conley has further initiated new protocols intended to prevent students from coming into contact with unsanitized surfaces and objects.

The school’s water fountains have been blocked off with yellow tape, soccer balls and kickballs are sanitized after every recess and checking out library materials has been temporarily restricted.

Every classroom has a hand sanitizer station at its entrance and students are discouraged from sharing pencils or papers with each other.

The nurse’s office has been strategically arranged to isolate students with COVID-19 symptoms from students suffering from a minor scratch or bruise.

Despite all the changes implemented across Conley’s campus, Shore said the first day of in-person learning on Sept. 14 went on smoothly and ended with very few hiccups.

The students seemed eager to be back among their peers, she said, and needed little enticing to get to their classroom.

“We didn’t have to pull one kid out of a car,” Shore joked.

The principal said she’s relieved to finally have students back at school and hopes it’s the start of a return to some sense of normalcy for the elementary school.

Virtual learning could not replace the face-to-face interaction with a teacher, Shore said, so the students are benefiting from being back in the classroom.

Teachers may have to take some time in the coming weeks to go back and review curriculum that may not have been learned adequately in the virtual setting, Shore added, stating that issue can be easily addressed.

“Nobody’s stressed out about that because we’re just excited to have (the students) back,” the principal said.

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