Students impatiently await return to classrooms

School district drafts plan for COVID-cautious sports and extracurriculars

From left, Cordova Jr./Sr. High School instructional aide May Quemado and office clerk Paoola Vargas prepare to distribute textbooks to students. (Aug. 25, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Cordova parents have carried on a vigorous discussion over just how schools should reopen. So have Cordova students, some anxious about the risk of the coronavirus, others eager to return to class as normal — perhaps more than during any previous school year.

Second-grader Lorelai Botz said that, if it were up to her, face-to-face learning would resume before the scheduled date of Sept. 7.

“I can finally go into a real place for school,” Botz said. “It’s just hard to learn on video calls.”

Cordova School District’s nine-week phased reopening plan called for staff to return to school buildings Monday, Aug 24-Sept. 4, instructing students by video chat. Beginning Sept. 7, rotating groups of students will return to Mt. Eccles Elementary School and Cordova Jr./Sr. High School. Various safeguards, large and small, have been implemented to impede the spread of the novel coronavirus: virus-blocking MERV-13 air filters have been installed, desks have been scooted 6 feet apart and classes have been broken into smaller cohorts to minimize the number of students in one place at a time.

“Everybody’s in good spirits and anxious to get through the first couple of weeks so they can see kids in person,” Superintendent Alex Russin said at a Friday, Aug. 21 special meeting of the Cordova School Board.

Elementary students won’t be required to wear their masks all day, officials said. Recess and “mask breaks” will allow them to breathe freely while distancing themselves from their peers. It’s expected that Mt. Eccles students, as well as older students, will be permitted to take home their school-issued laptops throughout the year. The school district intends to supply Chromebook laptops to students, though there may be a significant delay due to a nationwide run on Chromebooks.

Sixth-grade teacher Krysta Williams prepares for a day of teaching by video chat. (Aug. 26, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Amongst these knotty logistical issues, parents, educators and students agree on one point — that video learning isn’t quite adequate.

“You don’t have the same feedback that you do in person,” sixth-grade teacher Krysta Williams said. “You can see a picture of a person on the screen, but you don’t have the rest of the body language to work off of as you’re trying to figure out whether somebody’s quiet-focused or whether they’re quiet-frustrated… Even though we’re, quote-unquote, ‘together’ online, the kids are still sitting pretty much by themselves in a room somewhere, apart from each other.”

The coronavirus pandemic provided Williams with a crash-course on remote teaching. Now, returning to the classroom has presented a new series of puzzles, such as how to fit the necessary number of desks into the classroom while keeping them 6 feet distant from one another. Even in the classroom, students could end up communicating with one another by typing, Williams said. It may prove difficult for students to speak loudly enough to be heard at 6 feet without also drowning out other students trying to talk to one another. This issue, like many others, will be worked out on the fly after classrooms reopen Sept. 7.

“Necessity breeds innovation,” Williams said. “I think that some of these sixth-graders are probably going to solve some of these problems for me, because they’re going to come up with ways to meet a challenge that I wouldn’t have thought of.”

At a Wednesday, Aug. 26 meeting, the school board discussed a draft plan to mitigate the risk of the novel coronavirus at extracurricular activities. Under the draft plan, individuals showing symptoms consistent with COVID-19 would be asked not to participate in extracurricular activities and sports. These symptoms include a fever of 100.3 degrees, nausea, cough and headache. Travel for extracurricular activities would not be recommended under the draft plan. Sporting events and after-school activities requiring close contact, or activities that would promote congregating in large groups, would also not be recommended.

Sixth-grade teacher Krysta Williams is excited but anxious about the upcoming school semester, which will require her students to practice social distancing in the classroom. (Aug. 26, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

“We recognize that it’s not always possible to maintain physical distancing or wearing of masks or even washing hands, in the midst of activities,” Russin said. “But we want the culture to be that, when you’re not actively engaged in vigorous exercise or vigorous participation, that you do wear a mask when you can, during the practice or during the event.”

School lunch distribution at Mt. Eccles Elementary School has been moved from Tuesday mornings to Tuesday evenings from 4:30-6:30 p.m. to avoid creating congestion while parents are dropping off and picking up students, said Cordova School District Food Service Manager Sandie Ponte. As the school district is not currently participating in the Summer Food Service Program, only enrolled students, students participating in migrant education and Cordova’s correspondence program will be eligible for the free meals.