A year after the Centralia School District closed all buildings to in-person learning in March 2020, middle and high school students reentered the classrooms this week.
“This is a big step forward. It’s great having kids back,” Centralia High School Principal Josue Lowe said. “I can’t believe that we didn’t have kids in our building for over a year, and I could have never seen that coming. We spent a lot of time in the past two months planning for their return.”
The students are split into A and B in-person groups to limit the number of students in the building at a time. There is also a fully-virtual option for all students. The in-person school days are from about 7:40 a.m. to 12:35 p.m. and students are not eating inside the building.
“We are so excited to have students begin the hybrid program. We know it is good for our students and their learning,” Centralia Superintendent Dr. Lisa Grant said. “We thank our students and families for their collaboration and flexibility in this process. We know students returning to at least some face-to-face instruction will have a positive impact upon student learning and success.”
Lowe stood in the hallway as students walked to class on Friday morning, reminding students to keep their distance from one another, helping the younger students find their classrooms and offering words of encouragement on the abnormal first day.
There are about 330 ninth through 12th grade students in both the A and B groups and about 260 students — or about 25% — still learning virtually.
Months of planning went into preparing the building for the students’ return, Lowe said. One-way lanes have been mapped out in the hallways, maximum room occupancies have been established for each classroom, individual desks have been set up in common areas and COVID-19 screening areas have been established at building entrances.
“The guidelines are ever-changing, so just being able to be nimble enough to react to those changes and put more efficient procedures in place is important,” Lowe said.
The students aren’t using lockers at this point since it is a high-touch area that often spark congregation. The high schoolers also complete a health screening on their phone when entering the building each day.
The school buildings have created a “COVID Room” with enhanced air filtration to be used if a student comes to school with COVID-19 symptoms and needs to wait to be picked up.
“In preparation for this week, we have gone over all of the COVID guidelines with students ahead of time so that when students got here we could just hit the ground running. It seems to have worked out,” Lowe said.
Just down the road at the Centralia Middle School, Principal Kristeen Johnson was helping the seventh and eighth grade students as they asked “where’s room 300?” and “how do I get to the gym?” on their first day back in school on Friday morning.
“I enjoy getting to see the students and teachers interact. This has been hard on students, so to see them smiling as they enter the building — it brings me a lot of joy,” Johnson said.
Johnson said she has enjoyed watching teachers who have missed the in-person connection with students come alive as kids return to school.
“The biggest change that I’ve seen is that usually in the classroom students are more than willing to talk to each other, but now that they’re back from a break, they are more reluctant, so they’re very quiet in the classroom, which is abnormal for middle school kids,” Johnson said.
She expects the students to open up more as they adjust to being back at school with their peers after months of virtual schooling.
Anything in a building that would cause kids to gather, Johnson said, had to be modified. The time allotted for students to get to their next class was shortened to discourage gatherings in the hallways.
“That’s a struggle for me. I’m all about bringing kids together and giving them social experiences and memories within a building because that’s what makes them feel like they belong in that school and they are a part of a community,” Johnson said. “It’s been more difficult to create a community when you have all of these COVID things in place.”
As more members of the community are vaccinated and COVID-19 case numbers continue to decline, the two Centralia principals are hopeful the strong sense of community in schools will continue to grow.