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First Week of School 2020-2021

After a long hiatus, State High English teacher Mary Lou Manhart returned to a setting at once familiar and novel.

Last Wednesday, the State College Area School District opened the 2020-2021 school year, and it was anything but business as usual for Manhart as she delivered her first in-person lessons since the district’s spring shutdown from the COVID-19 pandemic.

For starters, her room was half full, thanks to secondary students being divided into two groups according to last names for alternating in-school days. While their classmates sat at their own tables, properly spaced apart and wearing masks like their teacher, the other half participated from home. Frequently, Manhart switched from addressing the room to engaging her remote students via a tripod-mounted camera.

With the remote students’ images projected on the front white board in a small grid, the first day orientation included a timely twist: a short video about the pandemic that offered advice and encouragement. Afterward, the class discussed their “takeaways.”

“How about something that elaborates that we’re stronger than we think?” Manhart prompted.

That morning, her students encountered an alternate version of their school. Hallway reminders to keep to the right and maintain six-foot physical distancing. Clear plastic shields at the front office counters. Fewer cafeteria tables, each with just two chairs. Hand sanitizer bottles at every turn.

In fact, every district school has various modifications added this summer to protect students, faculty and staff in accordance with the district’s detailed health and safety plan. Reports from across the district indicated a successful return to in-person learning — from the arrival of buses and parents dropping off students to new classroom and lunchtime routines.

“Super smooth,” State High Associate Principal Kathy Pechtold said of the start while checking in on classes.

Over the summer, district teams worked to build in-person, remote or Virtual Academy learning options for families, and about 73 percent of students are starting with in-person. Synchronous remote learning for elementary students began Friday, delayed to give teachers more time to help in-person students adjust to changes. But on Wednesday, one girl was so happy to see Gray’s Woods Elementary again, she started skipping straight off the bus while being escorted inside.

“She said, ‘I always skip when I’m excited, and I’m excited to be back at school,’” said SCASD Director of Student Services Jeanne Knouse.

At State High, Manhart approached the first day hoping to instill enthusiasm and optimism in her students.

I wanted my students to leave feeling encouraged,” she said. “It was most important to me to inspire in all of us some confidence that this will all work out. We all anticipated that there would be glitches, but most of all, I wanted things to go smoothly enough that it felt like school, that they would feel included, and that the good would outweigh the fears.”

After reviewing health and safety measures and talking about adjusting to school with masks, Manhart presented a community building exercise called “Three About Me.” On their phones or Chromebooks, the students chose photos that portrayed their lives and interests, linked them with a theme, and shared them in Google Hangouts. As a preview, Manhart showed her own set, along with two others from colleagues.

“For a teacher, there is really nothing like connecting with your students for the first time, and today was no exception,” she said. “ I took away the feeling of connection; when I could see their smiling eyes, when the remote students chimed in, when we got to the end of class and most students said they felt they were an 8 on a scale of 1-10, that was gold.”

As in previous years, Manhart sought to build community with her initial classes, “the feeling that we all belong, that we will learn and will care to learn who each of us is as an individual as well as to seek what connects us all.” Those connections will become even more important this year with divided classes and everyone negotiating an unfamiliar world.

“That’s where we are all at,” Manhart said. “Being back is not really ‘back’ — we’re in a new and ever-changing present moment that is sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes wonderful, and sometimes sad. We’re in a transition and it’s going to take time.”

In the meantime, she said, parents and guardians should know that “we are all 100 percent invested in making this work, and that we care deeply about our students’ experiences.”

I saw firsthand how well students and teachers showed up, whether in class or online — everyone came ready for whatever this experience would bring,” she said. “As teachers, we are all texting, talking, meeting at all times of the day and night sharing what we learn and troubleshooting. As our teacher-teams move forward, we will be learning quickly and improving every day. We didn’t forget how to teach, but the tools and landscape have changed and it’s going to take time, trial and error, and patience for us all to get our groove back.”

By Chris Rosenblum

Photos by Nabil K. Mark