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As CMS And Cabarrus Prepare For In-Person Classes, Gaston Provides A Glimpse Of How It Works

Bess preK line
Ann Doss Helms
Masked 4-year-olds line up six feet apart as they prepare to start their day at W.A. Bess Elementary in Gastonia.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Cabarrus County schools have approved back-to-school plans for elementary students that look a lot like what Gaston County has been doing since August. A visit to W.A. Bess Elementary School in Gastonia offers a look at how social distancing, COVID-19 screening and wearing masks all day plays out with young children.

This summer Governor Roy Cooper gave North Carolina public schools two options for August: Reopen remotely or bring students back with six feet of social distancing.

The biggest districts -- Wake, CMS and Guilford -- stuck with remote classes. Gaston County, with almost 30,000 students, was one of the largest districts to bring students back right away.

Bess Elementary mask
Ann Doss Helms
A Bess Elementary student works on an art project while wearing a face covering.

Like many districts, Gaston saw enrollment decline this year, especially among kindergarteners. And Superintendent Jeff Booker says he was surprised by how many families didn’t want their kids to come back in person.

The district started advertising its all-remote option in June, expecting about 2,000 students to sign up.

"Well, as it got more real to people and they saw what we were doing, we went from 2,000 to 4,000 to 7,000 to 9,000," Booker said Tuesday.

Last year Bess Elementary had about 600 students. This year, between the enrollment slump and students in the remote academy, about 350 are attending in person. They’re split by alphabet – half attend Monday and Tuesday, the other half Thursday and Friday. Wednesday is remote learning for all students and deep cleaning of the building.

All Buses Have Adult Monitors

For bus riders, in-person days are supposed to start with parents signing a form saying their kids don’t have a fever, don’t have COVID-19 symptoms and haven’t been exposed to anyone who has it. If the kids show up without that form, there’s an adult monitor assigned to every bus who can take their temperature and ask the questions.

Bess bus disinfect.jpg
Ann Doss Helms
Bess Elementary bus driver/custodian Bryan Hoffman uses an electrostatic fogger to disinfect a bus after a run.

Booker says most districts haven't provided monitors, but after a two-week trial, he decided it was worth the effort of keeping staff assigned to that duty.

Bus driver Donald Darby says he appreciates that it’s not his job to remind children to sit one to a seat and keep their masks on — though he says they are catching on.

"Yeah, most of the time. Most of the time," Darby said with a laugh. "It’s a few that I have to tell, but the majority of the time they’re pretty good about it."

After each run, drivers pull out an electrostatic fogger to disinfect the bus surfaces. It looks like a big green squirt gun.

Screening For Sick Kids

Meanwhile, car riders pull up to faculty wearing masks and gloves, who scan their foreheads and ask about symptoms.

Bess Principal Laura Dixon says parents have learned to put the windows down as soon as they pull up after cool weather brought a rash of false fever readings. "If they’re sitting right in front of the heater, it has a higher reading we’ve realized recently," Dixon said.

Bess entrance.jpg
Ann Doss Helms
Bess Elementary students go to one of three entrances, based on their grade level. Red spots mark six-foot distances.

On Tuesday one child had a real fever — and when his mother said he'd had cold symptoms she was told to take him home.

Students use three entrances to avoid crowding at the doors. Once inside they’re offered a bagged breakfast to take to class. It was doughnut sticks and Fruit Loops on Tuesday.

As children filed in, a few little noses peeked above masks. Dixon says that’s been a challenge – especially when the state provided adult-sized masks.

"We have little bitty faces," Dixon says.

Bess mask 1.jpg
Ann Doss Helms
A Bess Elementary student sports the ninja look with his face covering.

A local pharmacy donated some child-size face coverings — and many families provide their own, often coordinated with children's outfits or decorated to appeal to children. The few times a child has pulled up without a mask — "Just a legitimate 'Oops, I left it at home' " situation — Dixon says the school provided disposable masks.

Dixon says the biggest surprise has been how readily children and their families adjusted to the required face coverings.

"Oh, resistance – I expected it," she said. "Not necessarily at my school but in general. I’ve talked to my colleagues and they’re not having a problem either. Even middle schoolers, which love to resist, have been excellent with wearing their masks."

Creating Safe Classrooms

Dixon says Bess Elementary’s class sizes range from five students to 15. Classroom arrangements include spaced-out lines of desks, a huge open circle and six-foot tables with a student seated at each end.

In the pre-pandemic days, you’d have seen a lot of young students sitting in tight clusters – starting with the morning classroom meeting.

Bess distance class.jpg
Ann Doss Helms
A socially distanced classroom at Bess Elementary in Gastonia.

"You might sit on the carpet in a circle and hold hands or talk or interact with one another," Dixon said. "So now we’re separated in our desks -- still doing morning meeting, still singing our songs, but it just feels different."

Students still use hands-on learning materials, such as dropping beads into a plastic cup to learn counting. But instead of working together, they now work at spaced-out desks, with supplies that are either labeled just for them or sanitized after each use.

In the halls, students stay six feet apart when they walk to recess or the restroom. But they don’t spend much time outside their class.

Bess art.jpg
Ann Doss Helms
Bess Elementary's art teacher brings her "art barn" to classrooms so students don't have to move around the school.

Last year classes walked to art, music, the library and the gym. Now those teachers come to classrooms – and instead of having a different “special” class each day, the kids have one focus for six weeks.

"So in art that’s been so beneficial," Dixon said. "They will work with some clay. They’ll make a pot. They’ll fire it. They’ll glaze it. So there’s no waiting a week to do everything. It’s just right there in a row."

Dixon says the system also limits the teachers’ exposure – and the chances for any virus that gets in to spread.

Even at lunchtime, there’s no trek to the cafeteria. Instead, teachers pick up meals for their students.

"Today is spaghetti and meatballs, and it will be in a nice to-go container and wrapped and tied in a bag with their silverware and napkins," Dixon said.

Coping With COVID-19 Cases

In the first eight weeks of school, Gaston County Schools has tallied just over 100 cases of COVID-19 in 40 of its 54 schools. Those tallies include students and staff and don’t distinguish between the two.

One of them – Webb Street School for students with disabilities – was considered a COVID-19 cluster. One student and four staff were infected and health officials believe the virus spread at school. The school is back to in-person classes after closing for 10 days.

Bess Elementary’s only case was one student who tested positive the third week of school. Principal Dixon says the family kept the child home before anyone else could be exposed.

Superintendent Booker says in-person classes require administrators to spend a lot of time talking with health officials and creating new plans as new situations arise.

"It’s been a burden," he said. "We used to have a principals' meeting once a month. We’ve been meeting weekly. And sometimes the meeting’s 45 minutes long, sometimes it’s three hours long."

The decision to open in person was controversial, with educators and parents protesting for an all-remote opening. Booker believes the challenges are worth it when he sees the learning that takes place – and the joy that students show.

"I think not having it has made them value it more," Booker said.

Parents Say Kids Are Thriving

Jennifer Cherry agrees. She’s the mother of a first-grader and a fourth-grader, and she says she saw it the first day.

"They came home giddy – I mean, just completely giddy, which I felt like I had not seen such genuine happiness from them. And I don’t think they realized how much they missed it until they got back," Cherry said.

And she says her kids focus better on the three remote-learning days, knowing they’ll be back with their teachers and classmates in a few days.

Meagan Jones thought about keeping her twin daughters out of kindergarten this year. But she sent them to Bess – along with their second-grade brother – and has no regrets. She says she’s been surprised at how little they mind wearing masks all day, with breaks only for meals and outdoor play.

"Like my kids get in the car and they still have their masks on when we get home," she said.

Starting this week, North Carolina elementary schools have the option to relax social distancing and bring back larger groups. But Booker says he’s in no hurry. Parents and the community remain divided over the best and safest approach, he says. And any change takes thought and planning.

Dixon says she's eager to see her kids gathered on the floor for circle time again, but knows it will take time.

"We’ll get back to the rug," she said. "I mean, we miss it, but we’re doing what we need to do to keep everybody safe right now."