When Shatekon Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Derrick Aley went over this year’s schedule with his new students during the first day of school Wednesday, he drew applause and fist pumps with a crucial update: students would attend special classes like art, gym and music this year.
With pandemic precautions restricting classroom occupancies and the general movement of students last year, the school was limited in providing students the traditional – and much loved – elementary special classes. But this year the specials are back in session.
“Getting those back is a big deal,” Aley said during his lunch break on the first day of school. “There was definitely some excitement because they missed it.”
Students also get to leave their classrooms for lunch this year – last year they ate in their rooms, which they effectively remained in throughout the day – and the length of the school day was lengthened after the district shortened school days last year to manage the tricky transportation challenges of limited bus capacity.
Last year students were spaced six feet apart and Aley had 18 kids in his room; this year students are spaced three feet apart and he has 24 students in the class. In past years, he would have as many as 28 students in a class.
Aley, who has taught for over 20 years and has served at Shatekon since the school opened in 2007, said the first day back to school this year felt somewhat more normal than last year.
But not all is back to normal: a handful of Aley’s students this year spent all of last year learning in the district’s virtual option, so they have to transition back to being in a school building for the first time in well over a year.
“They are bringing different perspectives,” he said of the students. “We are taking baby steps to get them back into this thing we call school.”
And the rainbow-colored array of masks on student faces served as a constant reminder of the health precautions in place in schools throughout the state this year. The fifth graders all wore their masks in class. Aley said the students have grown to accept the masks as another thing they must do in school – to protect themselves and their classmates.
“It’s not a big deal to them anymore,” he said of kids wearing masks. “Kids are resilient and they have been able to adapt.”
Shatekon Principal Erica Ryan said there weren’t any issues with mask compliance on Wednesday. She said students get mask breaks and educators are working to help students advocate for themselves about when they need a break from the mask.
Educators at Shatekon and in schools across the region are mindful that student learning faced unprecedented disruptions last year and that some students may need extra support or help.
“We are all going in knowing there are going to be some gaps in learning,” Aley said. “And we are going to have to be patient and try to identify those gaps and really give the benefit of the doubt to students.”
Ryan was reluctant to call them “learning gaps,” but she said educators will work over the coming days and weeks to better understand where each student stands with their learning and figure out how to get them to where they need to be by the end of the year. She said curriculum changes may be possible as the year continues.
Ryan was also happy to be able to bring specials more fully into the school day this year.
“School isn’t just about math and reading, (special classes) really is a huge part of their learning,” she said.
Ryan also said students are learning countless life lessons by living through a pandemic, as difficult as it can be at times. She said students are learning how to advocate for themselves and how to empathize with others. They take the precautions to protect themselves and their friends, she said.
“All of these are life lessons for kids,” she said.
Like at the start of any school year, Aley spent much of the first day with his students on lessons that gave students a chance to get to know each other and start to work together. Students interviewed each other in the building and in the afternoon teamed up to start work on building contraptions that could catch a falling egg without breaking it. He also reminded them that as fifth-graders they must set an example for the rest of the school.
“This is like your second family until the end of the year, and we will always have that connection as 2022 Shatekon grads,” he said.