CECIL COUNTY — “It seems like everything is going back to how it was,” junior Adam Townsend said in the hallway of Perryville High School.
Townsend was one of the thousands of students across the county who returned to schools this week for the first time since March, sitting at desks beside their classmates and seeing their teachers face-to-face.
Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) entered the second phase of reopening this week, encouraged by positive local health metrics. Each day, the district welcomed back over 3,000 students — 25 percent of the roughly two thirds who are ready to return to in-person learning. In this phase, every student who wants to return gets at least one day in-person per week.
For students like Jaimere Guy, another Perryville High junior, being in the building makes learning easier.
“It’s different for me,” he said. “I feel like in school I’m more focused.”
For others, it’s a reminder that school is about more than just learning.
“When you’re at home, you don’t have the social aspect,” Townsend said. “You don’t have the people you talk to after class. You’re kind of just sitting there.”
Schools around the district are following strict safety policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Students and staff are required to wear face masks and maintain six feet of distance. Custodial staff roam the halls disinfecting high-touch surfaces. Cafeterias, media rooms and even some classroom desks are segmented with clear plastic sneeze guards.
Perryville High brought back about 115 students each day this week. Principal Theodore Boyer said that students are taking the safety guidelines seriously because they want to be back — they miss their friends, their teachers and the old routines of learning in school.
Kaylen Cloude, a fifth grader at Charlestown Elementary School, said that she is excited to be back in school because her brother distracts her at home.
“Virtual learning is not a good match for me,” she said. “It’s hard to learn how to do a bunch of stuff, to log on every day on the computer. I’ve been in school my whole life, and it’s too complicated.”
Her teacher, Rhonda Wagner, said that she could never have prepared for the abrupt shift to virtual learning last spring. She drove to each of her students’ homes delivering books, she said, just to check in and make sure they were safe.
Now, she couldn’t be more excited to have students back. Charlestown Elementary had between 60 and 70 students back each day this week.
“Teaching to a screen is not the same as having an interaction with kids,” she said. “That’s why I am a teacher. If I wanted to be a computer technician, I would have gone into that.”
Wagner said that in addition to minor technical glitches like web cameras cutting out, it’s hard to monitor students both online and in-person. Students feel more comfortable asking questions when they’re in the room with her, she said, and she sometimes isn’t sure if her students are listening and understanding her lessons.
“With virtual, people feel more insecure,” she said. “The kids are insecure. The parents are really insecure about what’s going on, and they’re nervous and they’re afraid their kids are falling behind.”
One remote student used the online learning platform’s ‘raise your hand’ function to get Wagner’s attention, and asked her what he should do after completing an assignment. Another remote student used the ‘raise your hand’ to ask if she could go to the bathroom.
“Yes, you may,” Wagner said.
Amid the new normal, some things never change — like asking permission to use the bathroom.
Students and teachers have adapted to new types of learning at a breakneck pace this year, but they are hoping the second phase of reopening is a step toward what they recognize.
Paula Kuenzle, a third grade teacher at Charlestown Elementary who has been teaching for nearly four decades, is anxious to get all of her students back face-to-face.
“This is year 38 for me, and it’s all new,” she said. “It’s like my first year all over again.”
For Emili Downing, an eighth grade English teacher at Perryville Middle School, balancing her virtual and in-person students can be a challenge.
“Sometimes I feel like I have it under control,” Downing said. “And then sometimes, it’s kind of like I’m a chicken with my head cut off.”
Perryville Middle School brought back almost 120 students each day this week. Each grade shares a lunch block in the cafeteria, so students can at least see their friends, even if they have to sit six feet apart.
Sixth grader Jack Edler said that talking with his friends in the cafeteria was one of his favorite parts of returning to school. He said that finishing fifth grade remotely wasn’t what he expected.
“Finishing up school at the end and seeing people — it was weird,” he said. “You knew who they were, but they sounded a lot different on the computer.”
While he has less homework these days, because he’s able to finish most of his work during class, Edler has had issues navigating the online learning platform. He said he often can’t access the video calls, or gets unexpectedly booted out, or simply can’t hear his classmates.
Seeing signs that things are returning to normal, Edler is excited.
“It’s much better not being virtual, because you’re more interactive with your teachers and other people,” he said. “You don’t have to just sit there all day.”
Perryville Middle School Principal Shawn Johnson said that as plans for reopening came together, he worried about a number of things which could go wrong. This week, however, has gone smoother than he expected — everyone is readily wearing masks, keeping their distance and sanitizing regularly.
Kids, he added, roll with the punches.
“I’m ecstatic to have kids in this building,” Johnson said. “The more students we see every day, the better I feel about what we’re doing. It feels more and more like school.”
For many teachers and students, the difference between in-person and virtual school can’t be overstated.
Janet Candy, an eighth grade social studies teacher at Perryville Middle School, said that she tries her best to make learning the same for her remote and face-to-face students. Still, she acknowledged that it’s different — students can ask questions more easily, and she can better gauge how well they understand the material.
Candy has a master’s degree in instructional technology and has studied how to put technology to use in the classroom. Building a personal relationship with each student, she said, is what keeps them interested.
“If the kids like you and find you engaging, they’re going to log in and work,” she said. “They’re going to try to do something every day, and if they feel comfortable with you, they’ll reach out and ask you questions.”
When she started teaching 15 years ago, she never expected to be teaching in the middle of a pandemic. But for Candy, it’s just another part of being a teacher.
“As a teacher, you always want to get better every year and every day,” she said. “If you get into teaching, you know that, and this is just another adaptation.”