By Everett Brazil, III
THE Newkirk Herald Journal
NEWKIRK — Newkirk Public Schools (NPS) re-entered the classroom for the 2020 – 2021 school year Thursday, Aug. 13, following weeks of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which started in mid-March. Officials are taking the reopening cautiously, and school administrators report a positive opening for the school year.
NPS Superintendent Scott Kempenich already sees success in the school year.
“I was really pleased. I thought every site operated a little differently, but it was best for that site,” he said. “We didn’t have any major issues. I think the students and staff are being flexible in the new COVID-19 era, and flexibility is key.”
Newkirk Elementary School (NES) Principal Pam Hunter oversees the most vulnerable students at NPS, and she is still excited about the start of the school year.
“It went fantastic. The kids have been great, and are complying with our requirements, such as hand sanitizing measures,” she said.
Unlike previous school years, students have an option of learning virtually from home, although most students are reporting to the classroom.
“We have 40 students enrolled in virtual school, and we have 271 students enrolled, virtually and traditionally,” she said. “The first day was a good day, and the kids were great.”
Newkirk Middle School (NPS) also saw a prosperous day. The school took advantage of online activities, such as enrollment, which not only helped protect the health of students and staff, but also streamlined the start of the school year.
“The first day went well. I thought part of the reason it did was the online enrollment,” said NMS Principal Jeff Wilson. “We’re down a few students, but we’re actually gaining students every day, and we’re going to be where we should have been at enrollment.”
Newkirk High School (NHS) Principal Kevin Engle referenced that the day at that campus also went smoothly, which indicated that the first day of the new school year was productive for all campuses.
“I thought it went well. We have a great staff here, so it was pretty easy for the teachers to adapt to the new new COVID-19 protocols, and the students did too, so I thought it went well,” Engle said. “We have about 240 students, so we’re right in line with last year’s numbers.”
Although the start of the school year has been viewed as fairly standard, the new school year is quite different, as staff and administration are working to keep the students safe amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The NPS School Board has passed a standard plan for closing the school in the event of a positive test for the disease.
The school is currently in the “Green” plan, where there are no known positive COVID-19 cases at the school. If students or staff test positive for COVID-19 on two campuses, the school enters the “Yellow” phase, which leads to blended learning for 14 days. In blended learning, half the student body will learn in the classroom Monday and Tuesday, and learn from home Thursday and Friday. Students at home Monday and Tuesday will work in the classroom Thursday and Friday. Wednesdays will be virtual learning for all students.
If another subsequent positive cases arises, the school enters the “Red” phase, and is in virtual learning for 21 days. If no subsequent cases are diagnosed, the “Yellow” phase is re-entered before returning to the “Green” phase.
Each campus has its own rules for day-to-day operations to keep all students and staff safe.
At NES, they are keeping individual grades separate, and each would be quarantined should a student or teacher test positive for the disease.
“If a second grader should test positive, we would send the second graders and teachers to work from home for two weeks,” Hunter said. “We are trying everything as reasonably possible to keep them safe.”
Students will not be required to wear a mask in the classroom, but in communal areas, it will be encouraged, and outside contact with the students will be limited.
“We are not requiring masks at the classroom, but when they’re in communal areas, such as the cafeteria, when they might be around kids from different grade levels,” Hunter said. “Any outside people will have to wear a mask, and only be in the office area. We want to keep the school open, and this is part of our safety protocol.”
Access to the Early Childhood Center will also be limited, as it houses the Pre-K and kindergarten classes.
Likewise, NMS has their own requirements to keep students and staff safe from COVID-19. That includes staggering bell times to limit the number of people in the halls between classes.
“We’re not letting everybody out at the bell; we’re trying to stagger the number of students in the hall at the same time,” Wilson said. “We’re also staggering our student release after school, and there are lunch tables outside the gym, and meeting tables outside the lunchroom.”
Wilson added that while masks are not required for students, they are recommended.
NHS is focusing on cleaning to help reduce the risk of COVID-19, and they are also offering masks for people entering the school. Also, temperatures will be checked for those entering the school building.
“We’re cleaning desks between each hour, and masks are encouraged for staff when they are walking through the hallways,” Engle said. “Our janitorial staff is wiping down high-use areas – door knobs, different things like that.”
As for athletics, all extracurricular activities will be cancelled during virtual learning, and games will also be cancelled if the opposing team tests positive for COVID-19. Newkirk coaches are working with area teams to determine how the seasons should run.
“We’re meeting with other area coaches and getting their thoughts closer to the start of the football season,” Engle said. “Softball is a smaller event, and parents are able to bring lawn chairs to social distance themselves. We’ll see how it goes.”
So far, the school year is off to a good start, and staff and administration are positive about remaining in the classroom for the school year.
“We really appreciate the efforts of the parents to keep the students safe, and we remain in the green zone. That is what everyone wants,” Hunter said.