Rockbridge County, Lexington schools transition back to in-person

Lexington City Schools and Rockbridge County Public Schools began a staggered return to in-person schooling earlier this month after nine weeks of primarily online learning.

Lexington City Schools and Rockbridge County Public Schools began a staggered return to in-person schooling earlier this month after nine weeks of primarily online learning.

At Harrington Waddell Elementary in Lexington, many K-1 students were jubilant as they arrived at school for the first time in over seven months, Principal Melanie Camden said. 

“The kids are thrilled to be back in school,” Camden said. “We had less criers this year than we have ever had, that’s how excited they are to be back in the building. They were running from their vehicles to get in here.”

Lexington City Schools invited K-1 students back beginning Oct. 26, and second, third and sixth graders returned last week on Nov. 9. The remaining grade levels will re-enter Nov. 16. 

Kindergarteners and first graders at Rockbridge County Public Schools have been learning in-person four days a week since September. Second, third, sixth and ninth graders began a hybrid model of schooling Nov. 10. Kids are sorted into two groups and attend in-person school on either Mondays and Tuesdays or Wednesdays and Thursdays, Central Elementary Principal Robin Parker said. 

In order to re-open, schools implemented safety protocols to guarantee distancing, mask-wearing and hygiene in classrooms. At Waddell and Central Elementary, some of those measures included lining the hallways with dots reminding kids to stay six feet apart, spacing desks six feet apart, having kids eat at their desks and increasing cleaning.

So far, both schools have observed promising compliance with the safety guidelines among students. Parker, who also reported that her students are “thrilled” to return to school, said that mask-wearing has been particularly consistent.

“Kids are used to masks and they wear them all the time,” Parker said. “We don’t have an issue with anybody not wearing masks.”

Camden said that Waddell’s youngest learners have done well with mask-wearing, but distancing has been harder to enforce. 

“We are continuing to work on the distancing,” Camden said. “We have dots throughout the building, which is a great visual reminder for them. But when they go out to recess, there’s a need for constant verbal reminders for the social distancing.”

As kids arrive back in school, they have more opportunities for one-on-one learning and intervention when they’re struggling, Parker and Camden said. Parker said that many experienced an academic “slide-back” that in-person schooling will help remedy.

Returning to school has also enabled more small-group and hands-on learning, though it looks slightly different during a pandemic, Camden said. 

In-person students at Waddell participate in small-group reading lessons while perched in separate corners of the carpet area, six feet away from each other. They have their own tubs of Play-Doh, magnetic letters and whiteboards to play with at their desks, as well as individual containers of books. 

Camden and Parker said that feedback from parents indicated that there was a broad desire to bring kids back to the classroom. 

“While some of our students flourished virtually and were able to handle it, the feedback was our children need to be in school,” Camden said. “I would say for the majority of the children, we are already seeing significant gains from our kids being in school. Especially for our littlest.”

While the majority of students have returned to the classroom in both RCPS and Lexington City Schools, many families have opted to remain virtual. At Central Elementary, about 90 out of 500 students will remain all-virtual for the rest of the term. 

That breakdown has required teachers to adjust their schedules in order to help out in-person and virtual students alike, Parker said. 

“We’ve worked with grade levels to free up teacher time so they can still work with the virtual learners at home and make sure those assignments are as effective and meaningful as the ones that are face-to-face,” Parker said. 

At Waddell, small handfuls of students in the early grade levels will stay virtual. However, 19 fourth graders and 12 fifth graders plan to continue virtual instruction.

Classics Department Chair Rebecca Benefiel, whose daughter is a 4th grader at Waddell, decided to continue with virtual instruction for the next nine weeks. She said that her daughter has thrived under virtual learning, which includes synchronous lessons in reading, writing, and math, as well as PE and music lessons. 

“I’ve been really amazed at how well her classroom teacher has set up a learning environment where the students have contact with the teacher, they have independent learning and they have time in class with their peers,” Benefiel said. “It’s been a really good balance and she’s been very happy.”

Benefiel cited safety concerns as a reason for staying virtual: COVID-19 case counts in Lexington are rising, and things are expected to worsen during the winter months. Benefiel said that the fear of outbreaks and uncertainty about being sent home at W&L were points of distress that she didn’t want to replicate for her daughter.

All grades at Waddell will have a full-time virtual teacher continuing to provide synchronous instruction, Camden said. Benefiel’s daughter will keep her current teacher even as her classmates transition to in-person learning.

Benefiel praised Waddell’s flexibility and early planning for accommodating both groups of learners.

“They really have dedicated themselves to creating the best learning experience they can for these students,” Benefiel said. “I’m just so grateful to these teachers for making learning fun and effective when we’re all trying something new.”