SCHENECTADY – As the line for sixth-grade students at Mont Pleasant Middle School inched slowly toward the front entrance, parent Vidya Aaditya told a reporter she was having a “meltdown” about the first day of school and the full-bore transition to in-person learning for her 11-year-old son, Adrian.
The boy won’t be eligible for vaccination from the coronavirus until he turns 12.
“I’m wrecked,” Aaditya said. “I just want to make sure that they’re safe, and that they’re not going to put them in a spot where they have to make a choice to be safe or not, or their dear life is in any kind of unsafe zone.”
Aaditya said she was laid off from her job as an educator last year, but because of that, her two children (the other is in high school) did well under her guidance with virtual learning. She said it was convenient having her kids at home.
“They shouldn’t be in contact with anybody, period, less than 6 feet,” which is double the school district’s standard of 3 feet for social distancing.
“That’s my priority for them,” she said. “If I were to be working at the school still, I would do it. I did it, (although) it breaks my heart.”
But Adrian, whose favorite subject is math, said he was eager to return to in-person learning and having “a real exchange” with educators rather than “meeting with a camera on.”
In the same line, Lashonta Gordon, with her 11-year-old daughter Tadayah Hogan, said she was torn by her concerns for safety while acknowledging it was time for the students to be back in classrooms.
“Hopefully, the kids are mature enough at this age to put their mask on,” Gordon said, adding the students “need to be social. They need to be around other children; they’ve been in the house for over a year.
“Of course, I’m excited for her to be back and she’s excited to be back,” Gordon said. “But I’m quite sure a lot of parents and myself are just nervous. Who wants their kid to get sick and they can’t be vaccinated right now?”
A reporter accompanied new Superintendent Anibal Soler Jr. as he greeted students and parents outside the middle school, and during his walk to nearby Steinmetz Career and Leadership Academy, where he chatted amiably with students and staffers in the hallway.
Soler planned to make the rounds to city elementary schools and the high school before day’s end.
Soler said the year was starting with about 9,300 in-district students, with another 600 or 700 placed out of the district, and more registering.
He said getting back to routines and resetting expectations were among the day’s objectives.
“The Day 1 focus is health, safety, the basics,” Soler said. “We’re making sure our doors open, our buildings look presentable, making sure kids have what they need, making sure staff have the right furniture – some of those things that we spent a lot of time on over the last four weeks.”
By the end of the day, students would know just how much teachers missed them, Soler said.
“We’ve never done this, right?” the school chief said of the return, during a pandemic. “In Schenectady, we shut down in March of 2020, and then we brought back kids in a kind of hybrid, mixed version. But to get back to this, every day, in person, it’s a big step for us. Our teachers are prepared and they’re excited to have the kids back.”
The hope is that after Thursday’s first day, much of the anxiety subsides and the district finds its groove, he said.
“The biggest thing should be that you’ve just got to wear a mask and follow the protocols. And if you happen to get sick, stay home.”
On his way to the academy, Soler encountered seventh- and eighth-grade Spanish teacher Chris Rogers, whom Soler introduced as “one of our superstar teachers.”
The second-year educator is a product of the Electric City, having graduated from Schenectady High School in 2016. Rogers also has a strong presence on social media.
Rogers said he spent his first year focused on curriculum and understanding what he had to teach. With the return to full, in-person learning, he said his focus shifts to relationships.
“It’s kind of like I have two first years,” Rogers said.
In the leadership academy hallway, Principal Gregory Fields periodically said “noses” and pointed to his face mask as a reminder to students whose coverings weren’t pulled up high enough.
“As I just told them,” Fields said, “I love being back to see their faces after 18 months.”
In the face of the litany of COVID regulations, Fields said he assured students they’d be treated like young adults.
For instance, Fields said his safety, health and wellness team came up with the idea to not require restroom passes.
“They’re going to get up and go to the restroom when they need to,” he said. “Hall monitors will be keeping track of the people – the number of people and names of people per contact tracing. But they’re going to be treated like adults, and we’re relieving some of these rules that we don’t have to have.”
Naturally, virtual learning was a challenge for the hands-on nature of the vocational-themed academy.
Fields said his culinary program had to have refrigerators moved to the high school, where students would pick up their kits and then cook in their homes as a teacher observed virtually.
“But we got through it,” said Fields, noting that the exposure at the high school had the unintended consequence of drawing 15 high school students to the academy’s culinary program this year. It’s double the number of high school students who are typically bussed to the academy for culinary arts.
Not done with silver linings, Fields said he’s telling all students that they’re the first generation that “knows about technology for instruction, and they come back with that.”
Rather than adopt the universal term of pandemic learning loss, Fields said he’s referring to it as unfinished learning.
“You can’t lose something you didn’t have,” Fields said. “It’s not on them. It’s on us. We’ve got to finish your learning.”