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New normal

TCCS declares successful first day of classes

Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry Tidioute Community Charter School Senior Sara Heckman moves through the lunch line masked and distanced Thursday on the first day of school.

The first day of school carries many challenges in a normal year.

This year is anything but normal, with students required to wear masks all day, stay six feet apart, and other rules in place intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Tidioute Community Charter School opened Thursday to good results.

“You couldn’t have asked for it to go any better,” Office Manager Heather Cass said. “We’ll end this day being very excited about how it went.”

But, there was no doubt things were different.

Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry Jesse Strait, a pre-k-5 student at Tidioute Community Charter School, listens at his desk surrounded by a screen Thursday on the first day of school.

From the moment students arrived at school, every step was organized.

Each bus disgorged its students before the next unloaded.

Just inside each entrance were temperature-reading kiosks. Students stood on a mark on the floor and were evaluated almost instantly. Those who weren’t wearing masks were reminded with a visual and spoken message.

Stickers on the floor kept students apart. Other markings in high-traffic areas like the lunch line showed where students had to stand to maintain six feet of distance.

Students did go through the lunch line. Delivering meals to classrooms would have led to students having very limited choices, probably without hot foods. The decision was made to let students go one-at-a-time through the line, picking out the foods they wanted.

Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry James Nansen, a pre-k-4 student at Tidioute Community Charter School, shows a normal temperature -- 97.7 -- on a kiosk at the front door. The three kiosks takes temperatures and remind students to wear masks.

Classrooms looked different. Elementary grade rooms had clear-front shields on each desk.

Instead of keeping the elementary students in one wing and the high school students in another, the students were put in the spaces that would accommodate them while maintaining social distancing.

“The teachers worked hard over the summer,” Cass said. “They came in on their own time. We moved a lot of classrooms in a short amount of time.”

“Everybody worked hard,” Assistant Principal Ryan Guerra said. “The teachers went above and beyond.”

“The first thing we did was measure the rooms and determine how many kids per classroom,” Guerra said.

Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry Tidioute Community Charter School first grader Layla McDonald works at her desk, surrounded by a screen, Thursday on the first day of school.

“We took our three biggest spaces and turned them into classrooms,” Cass said.

“We had a wall in our library,” Guerra said. “We took it down to create a third grade classroom.”

The gym survived repurposing. “We were able to safety and securely bring back all our students and maintain that space,” Guerra said.

In some cases, infrequently used items were moved out to allow a few more students to fit in spaces.

The school backed off of changes made over several years that encouraged small group work. Principal and CEO Dr. Doug Allen said the school had to purchase desks in order to keep students six feet apart. “We’re following CDC guidelines to the letter,” Allen said.

The CDC expects officials to be able to provide contact tracing in the event of a positive COVID case.

Students are not moving from room to room as they have in the past. “They’re not moving every period,” Cass said. “Teachers are floating instead of students.”

Instead of moving students to their specials, specials were moving to students.

And, there isn’t a bell system that tells entire cohorts to get up and move. “They’re not releasing all at the same time,” she said.

The school received $190,000 in CARES Act funding. Among the purchases that were made from that fund were the kiosks, desks, and laptops.

The most visible change in most areas was the presence of masks.

After the Pennsylvania Departments of Health and Education clarified that Gov. Tom Wolf’s universal mask order did apply in schools, some people were concerned.

“The biggest concern of parents right now is all-day masks,” Allen said.

“Some kids have been going around all summer without masks,” Cass said. “We’re transitioning. It’s different.”

There were ‘face-covering’ breaks. Students were given breaks of about 10 minutes when they didn’t have to wear masks, but they had to be six feet away from everyone else and couldn’t move around during the breaks.

Lunch was another mask-free time. After students picked up their meals, they took them to wherever their class was assigned for lunch. Some classes ate in the courtyard. Others were back in their classrooms. “They’ll have that space where they can get that six feet, take of their masks, and eat,” Cass said.

Students who didn’t put their masks back on after lunch or a break were gently reminded.

Teachers were also encouraged to deliver instruction outside, when appropriate.

Students have new technology at their disposal.

They will take Chromebooks and iPads home every day. If a sudden change is made and students are unable to return in person, they will have access to the lessons, texts, and other materials they will need to continue their education at home.

“We’re ready to flip,” Allen said.

No one can tell what the next few weeks will hold. Going day-by-day is challenge enough.

“This is a whole new dynamic,” Cass said.

The staff is adapting, as are the students.

“We’re all willing to be flexible,” Cass said. “The teachers are all jumping in.”

“Our teachers are just happy to see our students back together,” Assistant CEO Melissa Mahaney said. “They students have been very compliant with the rules and the masks. Overall, everything is going well.”

“It’s amazing how fast the kids have adapted,” Guerra said.

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