WOODSBORO – Although there is still a long way to go, the Woodsboro Independent School District is taking steps toward a return to normalcy, as students return to campus two grade levels at a time.

This staggered approach to returning to face-to-face instruction is helping the district balance and improve its focus on health conditions on the elementary and secondary campuses as well as continuing to meet the needs of other students via online learning.

“Having the students return in groups helps with the ability to focus on health procedures,” said Superintendent Janice Sykora. “It is also helping us prepare for social distancing requirements which is a challenge. There are new barriers, rules and formats in place and it’s quite an adjustment.”

Pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students were the first to return to the elementary campus on Aug. 24, while the seventh- and ninth-graders were the first to return to the junior and senior high school.

At the elementary level, first and second and third grade students were scheduled to return to campus on Aug. 31, with those in fourth, fifth and sixth grades coming back on Sept. 8.

“We felt a slow, staggered start would be beneficial in helping with social distancing needs,” said elementary school Principal Leslie Garza. “Everybody coming back at one time would be difficult.”

Remote learning is underway as well, and Garza said teachers are adjusting to providing a more rigorous learning environment online as opposed to the less stringent requirements during remote learning when campuses closed in March.

Garza said she has been impressed by the response of both students and parents during the return to campus.

“It’s been a challenging adjustment for parents because (before the coronavirus pandemic) they were able to walk their children to the classroom, and now they have to leave them at the curb,” she said. “But they have done a great job adjusting to that.

“I have been blown away with how well the students have responded, and some of the younger ones haven’t been in school before. They are doing everything we ask and have done such a great job.”

Sally McCloud, a fourth grade teacher, has four years experience in education, including two with WISD. Her students are still learning online, but she said they are also adjusting well.

“I’ve been impressed with how we’ve been able to build relationships with the kids and we’ve even had the opportunity to meet their pets — dogs, cats and snakes,” she said. “It’s exciting for them to be able to have that interaction but they also tell us they can’t wait to come back. They are craving that connection of being here.”

Kylie Bolcik, a third grade teacher in her 16th year at WISD, said the start of the year has been challenging.

“The kids are ready to come back and asking when they can come back seems to be the popular question,” she said. “I was shocked as far as attendance. I’ve had about 20 kids start the day with us online each morning and they stay with us throughout the day.

Kindergartener Joseph Lesak is a new student at WISD. His father is the athletic director for the district and his mom is the high school counselor. Although he was a little shy when asked questions, he did tell his principal that he was glad to be back on campus, enjoying recess with other students and snack time and being with friends.

Helping the students learn social distancing and hygiene rules are Dr. Seuss displays posted throughout the school. To help comply with social distancing, eagle claws (in honor of the school mascot) have been painted both inside and on walkways outside.

“It’s been great from day one,” Garza said. “The students who followed the rules beautifully.”

At the junior high and high school level, Dr. David Segers, in his first year as the secondary school principal, sid he is seeing a smooth start.

Seventh and ninth grades returned to campus Aug. 24, eighth and 10th grades came back Aug. 27 and juniors and seniors were set to return to campus Aug. 31.

“We are having to unlearn a lot of behaviors that you usually see, such as congregating in groups, to do what is needed to help keep everyone safe,” Segers said. “We are making sure students have face shields or masks on and that they spread out.”

The first two grades back on campus had about 77 percent attending in person as of the third day of face-to-face learning, and the ditrict continues to provide online options.

“Some of the parents who had originally decided on the virtual option decided to send their students back, and we want them here,” Segers said. “On campus is where the magic happens.”

He said the planning process has been a challenge because “for everything that we solve it seems like we come up with six more questions, but we’re working through that.”

Many of the lessons learned in terms of social distancing and sanitation will also be helpful during flu season, Segers said.

“We are learning a lot and we want to keep the kids as healthy as possible,” he said. “The kids and staff have been fantastic and our community has been very supportive of the efforts we’re taking.”

Crystal Escobar, a five-year teaching veteran (all at WISD) who teaches ninth and 11th grade English, said she sees students taking requirements seriously so they can stay healthy and learn.

“They are building great habits and they want to be here,” she said. “At the same time we are doing what is needed to make distance learning successful. One of the things that’s important is being able to hear what the kids have to say — not just them hearing what I am saying.”

When the students were only learning via the internet, she said they expressed an eagerness to return to campus.

“They are saying they wish they were in school, and when do you ever hear that?” Escobar said. “They want some sort of normalcy and glimmer of hope that things will get back to normal. School helps offer that glimmer of hope — it’s up to each of us to provide it.”

Ninth-grader Roan Bauer said he’s happy to be back at school.

“Coming back was nice,” he said. “I hadn’t seen my friends in a long time and it was good to see them. I know it’s going to be different but at least I get to be with my friends.”

Online learning was sometimes challenging because of technological glitches, such as getting bumped off the internet during a class, Bauer said.

“It happened to me a couple of times so I missed a few things and had to get with a friend and catch up,” he said.

Bauer also has some advice for everyone to help them remain healthy.

“Stay safe, keep your mask on and use plenty of hand sanitizer,” he said.

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