Like countless academic institutions nationwide last year, Highland Elementary School had an especially busier summer schedule than usual. After the coronavirus pandemic led to Connecticut schools being closed for four months, Highland administrators, teachers, and families focused on strategies to bring students back to classes safely.
“Like all other local schools, we adopted a plan from the state of Connecticut and the town of Cheshire,” reflected Principal Scott Jeffrey. “We evaluated everything to make sure we could social distance, wear masks, and sanitize all surfaces.”
While the school has taken on a new look since opening last September, Jeffrey is pleased that Highland students have been able to attend in-person classes without interruption.
“The reopening process took the work of a lot of people, including our assistant principal (Erica Bordonaro) and school committees,” stated Jeffrey. “We had to do videos to explain the changes and meet with parents.”
On a weekly basis, Jeffrey estimates that there are 15 to 21 students learning in each classroom. Desks are spread out to follow guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Highland staff and students are required to wear masks except for when they have social-distancing activities like lunch.
“With our lunch protocols, we had to get three large tents outside for the kids,” stated Jeffrey. “We also have had to separate kids at recess. The students have to stay with their cohort.”
Jeffrey recalls hearing concerns last year over how children would handle wearing face coverings, but in a pleasant surprise, he has seen students transition well to the protocol.
“They have proved adults wrong in that way,” said Jeffrey. “We have to remind some kids about putting it (the mask) above their nose, but they’ve adapted quickly to that.”
While Highland has been open since last fall, Jeffrey estimates that 15 to 20 percent of families have opted for their children to learn from home during the pandemic.
“Doing remote learning is a parent’s decision, but we want the kids to feel as comfortable as the students in class,” explained Jeffrey. “Collaboration used to be done in groups, but now it also happens over the computer. The kids are technology natives, so they have done well adjusting to the changes.”
Jeffrey is proud of how teachers have handled remote learning, but feels that students also benefit from being around each other in the school setting.
“For a lot of people, the emotional and health level has suffered during the pandemic, but I think going back to school was a booster shot for kids,” stated Jeffrey. “The students enjoy seeing their friends and teachers. If they have to quarantine, they miss those relationships.”
Positive interaction was one of the aspects that Highland staff spoke about during Kindness Week, which ran from Jan. 25-29 in Cheshire.
While the pandemic is still ongoing, Jeffrey felt that his staff could safely continue with the traditional program that coincides annually with the Great Kindness Challenge.
“The event is done around the country. Each day, we have activities to promote kindness, such as writing thank you cards to people or doing random acts of good will,” Jeffrey explained. “When you demonstrate kindness, it provides social and emotional support for others.”
While proceeding with a popular event, Highland has had to adapt their schedule to meet health concerns. There are currently no field trips scheduled this year, while cultural arts events have been changed to remote activities.
Highland couldn’t hold their traditional Halloween Parade last year, but students were able to wear costumes to school and participate in a craft activity with their peers. Room parents worked with teachers to provide supplies for the project.
In recognition of Valentine’s Day this month, students will be able to give cards, but there will be no food or candy exchange.
For activities like the holiday projects, Jeffrey adds that all materials are required to be individually wrapped and then quarantined for 72 hours prior an event.
“Everything has to be looked at differently,” explained Jeffrey. “We have to evaluate how to hold events and maintain safety.”
Along with teaching, Highland staff and administrators also work on honing their skills in professional development programs. When teachers meet at Highland, they form groups to look at social and student needs.
“We are all life-long learners,” Jeffrey explained. “Whether it is learning on our own or as a group, it is important to help students in the best ways possible.”
To assist families outside of school, Jeffrey is happy that Highland uses the Circle of Security Parenting Series, a researched-based program that stresses supporting and strengthening secure relationships between parents and children.
“This program is one piece of the puzzle, as we work to support our students’ social and emotional needs,” explained Jeffrey.
With families still having concerns about the pandemic, Jeffrey is happy that Highland is offering in-person and remote learning options this year.
“Everyone hopes that the vaccines get us back to normal in the future,” said Jeffrey. “We all pray that we don’t all have to go back to remote learning like last year.”