WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – Summer vacation is coming to a close for many children in Southeastern North Carolina. As students prepare to head back to the classroom, WECT is visiting each school district in the Cape Fear and showcasing what each school system is doing to protect students and staff from COVID-19.
Snipes Academy is one of several year-round schools in New Hanover County where students have already returned to the classroom. While most of the district’s schools don’t begin until Monday, August 23, the hallways of Snipes are already filled with the patter of little feet and classrooms are alive with children singing songs, laughing and learning.
Just days into the new school year, there’s plenty to celebrate in Mrs. Malahias’ first grade class.
“They’re very nervous coming to school, they’ve been virtual most of the year. They’ve never had a true year. This group of first graders, because kindergarten they missed the whole start, then they were virtual, then they came in March. They’ve never had a full year of school,” said 1st grade teacher Courtney Malahias. “I take it really slowly and we are learning each other’s names and learning about what they like, what makes them tick, playing a lot of morning meeting games, and making a really safe environment for them.”
Safety is the goal also shared by the administrators who designed the COVID-19 protections for the district’s students.
“We are really valuing in-person learning and want to make sure we protect every child’s opportunity to participate in that,” said Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services Julie Varnam.
New Hanover County opted for universal masking for everyone this year, regardless of a person’s vaccination status, per the advice of the NC DHHS Strong Schools Toolkit. If a person is unable to wear a mask, a mask exception process must be followed to support appropriate accommodations for people with certain disabilities. Masks are not required to be worn outdoors.
All students in New Hanover County Schools will attend in person, unless a student is enrolled in online learning or has a medical exemption.
Several procedures from last year, including strict cleaning, distancing students a minimum of three feet and six feet when they can, and keeping children in cohorts have made a comeback.
The students at Snipes Academy continue to forgo the cafeteria, and instead eat lunch in the classroom, but many schools plan to have children eating in lunchrooms again this school year. Water fountains are allowed to reopen as well.
However, you will not see some measures that were in effect last year, like plexiglass barriers, or symptom checks when children arrive at school.
“We won’t see temperature checks and that kind of thing, as the CDC has said that’s really not a valuable use of time,” said Varnam.
In another departure from last year’s policies, parents can expect to only get notified of a positive case of COVID-19 in a school if their child has come in close contact with a person with the virus. After talking with health department officials, school leaders also decided the district will not maintain the COVID dashboard on the NHCS web page and will instead rely on the public health department’s database.
The district adds though, that it does have an extra layer of protection throuhg school nurses, who are actually contracted employees of the county public health department.
“So when we have our cases in schools contact traced by the school nurse. they’re being contact traced by the health department,” said Varnam.
It’s a strategy that has worked so far. At last check, no clusters have been reported in the year-round schools that have already started in New Hanover County.
The masking and distancing requirements are rules Mrs. Malahias says even her first graders understand, and have had no trouble following.
“They’re being very respectful,” said Mrs. Malahias. “I remind them when we have snack we’re not talking because our masks are down and they listen, they get it. It’s just taking your time and they’re going to get it, children are amazing.”
Mrs. Malahias calls her students her “persistent pineapples,” weaving in lessons of resilience, and reminding her young pupils to remain persistent in the face of the obstacles, like starting yet another school year with COVID-19.
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