New Normal School Year?

 In Education, Family Matters, Health Matters

When asked about the prospect of a normal school year getting underway this August, Alfie Wheeler couldn’t help but laugh a little.

Define normal,” the Manteo High School Athletics Director said a few weeks before Dare County Schools welcomed students for the first day of classes on August 23. “It’s kind of ‘to be determined,’ you know?”

Michel Alameddine Sanchez, with two children in college, one at First Flight High School and another at Kitty Hawk Elementary, said her whole family is ready to get back to what they’re calling “a new normal.”

“I think we’ve all come to the realization that normal will probably look different, and it won’t be normal as it was X number of months ago. But we’re all really OK with that,” Sanchez said.

Students headed home from coast to coast on March 13, 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic raced around the world. Following the end of that ill-fated school year with missed sports seasons, proms, graduation/promotion ceremonies, and more, hopes continued to be dashed throughout the 2020-21 school year.

Locally, students were remote, then partially in class, then remote again, then mostly in class. Everyone in the schools wore masks, but games got played, dances took place, end-of-year achievements were celebrated.

Optimism abounded for the country as a whole and schools in particular that the worst of COVID-19 was in the past. But then, the delta variant emerged over the summer, and new worries came with it. Students across the country are back in school full-time, but some are still wearing masks, either by choice or district mandate.

obx kids back to school waiting

In Dare and Currituck counties, masks were made optional for students, staff, and visitors by the local boards of education. In addition, quarantine rules were relaxed for those exposed to the virus but were wearing masks or have been vaccinated.

Welcome to the “new normal.”

“It’s extremely disappointing that we’re not through with this yet,” Sanchez said. “But I think the more we take some responsibility for helping ourselves and our family and our community get through it, perhaps the closer we’ll get to a better new normal. Slowly shifting toward something that looks more normal.”

For Sanchez and her family, that means wearing optional masks. Her sons in college are required to wear them — and happy to do so since that means they’ll get to have the whole college experience this year. Her daughters, meanwhile, were looking forward to getting away from their screens and back in front of honest-to-goodness classmates and teachers.

“My second-grader, she has missed that interaction and that time to laugh with each other. She’s most looking forward to being a kid in school and being able to have those more fluid conversations that are easier face to face,” Sanchez said. “For my sophomore, she misses the part of school that is beneficial for social development.”

The high schooler also missed continuity last year, as one quarantine after another led to changes in the schedule. That’s one of the reasons Sanchez says her family continues to wear masks. But, of course, another big reason is that they got comfortable masking up long before COVID became a household name.

obx kids back to school waiting

Sawyer Sanchez, now an undergrad at the University of Kentucky, battled through a cancer diagnosis in high school.

“We spent a couple of years wearing masks when Sawyer was sick because it helped keep him safe from viruses,” Sanchez explains. “We also developed a close group of friends that were all from the same community of cancer patients. And we realized that it was our responsibility to help them as well. So it became a very comfortable part of our life anyway and didn’t seem to bother any of us.”

Of course, that’s not the case for everyone, and with masks being optional this year inside the classroom, school will look much different than last year. Social distancing guidelines have been cut from six feet to three feet. Signage in buildings instructing students to walk in one direction in the hallways has come down. Lunchrooms either remain closed or serve small groups of students at a time, with some students continuing to eat in the classroom.

One of the most significant indicators that a more typical school year was coming arrived in early August when sports teams gathered to practice at area high schools. Last year, the first sports seasons were delayed until November and December, with football games being played in February and March. But at Manteo and First Flight, football practice enjoyed its traditional August start date. The neighboring rivals are scheduled to meet for the annual Marlin Bowl on September 24 at FFHS.

“We’re certainly in a better position in the sense that it is more normal with your sports seasons lined up like they traditionally are with fall, winter, and spring,” Wheeler said. “Last year, everything got thrown around. They were shorter seasons. You had overlap (of sports) that we weren’t used to, so there were a lot more variables.”

For all the changes that took place last year, the athletes still got to have their seasons. The graduates still got to throw their caps in the air at regular commencement ceremonies. And for the entire final quarter, all the students who signed up for in-person schooling were able to be in the building four days a week.

obx back to school

That personal interaction is what Wheeler missed the most during remote learning, and that’s what the PE teacher is most excited about for this school year.

“I wouldn’t want to speak for everybody, but most every teacher, when you get into education, you see yourself with a class full of students. You don’t really sign up to do what we had to do last year,” Wheeler said. “We’ll be much happier that the kids are in front of us because I do think it makes a difference. It’s good for them. It’s good for the teachers and for education.”

back-to-school-kids-mask

That personal interaction is what Wheeler missed the most during remote learning, and that’s what the PE teacher is most excited about for this school year.

“I wouldn’t want to speak for everybody, but most every teacher, when you get into education, you see yourself with a class full of students. You don’t really sign up to do what we had to do last year,” Wheeler said. “We’ll be much happier that the kids are in front of us because I do think it makes a difference. It’s good for them. It’s good for the teachers and for education.”

The hope for all concerned is that COVID numbers stay low enough that kids can stay in school and continue trending back to whatever kind of normal is possible amid a pandemic. Wheeler praised advances made in using technology last year to deliver remote instruction. Sanchez was effusive in her praise for what her daughters’ teachers managed under last year’s trying circumstances.

But no one can stomach the thought of another shutdown — not after coming so close to achieving some semblance of a normal school year.

“I’m very much looking forward to my kids going back to school and being a part of a community again, but I also feel like we have this wonderful opportunity for some great takeaway lessons for their own growth and development in terms of compassion, community building, independence, responsibility, empathy,” Sanchez said. “My hope is that they take those lessons that we’ve had the opportunity to learn over the past 18 months and carry them forward into whatever our new normal looks like.”

Steve Hanf worked as a sportswriter for 13 years before becoming a teacher in 2010 and currently leads the journalism program at First Flight High School.

Steve Hanf
Author: Steve Hanf

Steve Hanf worked as a sportswriter for 13 years in North Carolina before finding a fun second career in the classroom. He currently advises the newspaper and yearbook programs at First Flight High School and loves his new life on the OBX.

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