Updated March 1, 2021 - 6:22 pm
Young students across the Las Vegas Valley returned to school Monday for a first day of instruction like no other, following almost a year of distance learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The excitement outside Tyrone Thompson Elementary School rivaled that at Sunday’s Golden Globes, as adoring parents snapped photos and the PA system blared Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”
Preschoolers sat in the center of hula hoops to help them envision social distancing before following their teachers inside — a sign, like the masks they were wearing, that this is not a typical school year.
Just over 40,000 students in preschool through third grade districtwide are returning this week for hybrid instruction — two days of in-person learning in classrooms and three days of distance learning — after being out of school buildings since March 2020.
The hybrid phase for elementary students will end on April 6, when full-time in-person instruction will resume for those whose parents choose to return them to the classroom, according to a plan announced last week by Clark County School District officials. Older students will return under the hybrid model in two waves beginning March 22.
At Thompson, where around 90 students returned Monday — or about one-quarter of the total — parents reported no hesitation in sending their kids to the classroom, citing the need for social interaction as a primary motivation.
“It sucks doing school from the kitchen table,” said Sarah Colwell, parent to a third-grader.
Colwell said she realizes there are only a few months left of school, but added that her daughter needs interaction with her peers and teachers after a year of being home.
“And honestly, I just want her out of the house,” she said.
Paula Barton, grandparent to a preschooler, said the boy was elated to be on campus, primarily for the opportunity to socialize. But learning is also a factor, she said.
“He probably does better, getting it from the teacher instead of us,” she said.
Frank Hoffman, parent to two Thompson students, said he was hoping they’d benefit from face-to-face time with a teacher.
“I think you get more out of it than being at home,” he said.
For his daughter Abigail, the answer to what she was most looking forward to came easily:
“To sit at my desk and see Miss Stanley, ” she said.
‘Reignited with joy’
When it was time to head in, one 3-year-old preschooler burst into tears, but regained his composure soon after walking into the building, Assistant Principal Vanessa Price said.
Price said she was most looking forward to the personal contact with kids.
“Teachers are reignited with joy,” she said. “They didn’t sign up for teaching online.”
Price said the district’s newest school has now had multiple so-called reopenings, marking the first day of school in August with teachers on campus, and then welcoming them back last week after a period of working from home over the winter. But Monday’s reopening felt like the real deal.
“Today we feel the energy and the excitement,” she said.
The next step is to work out whatever issues may arise ahead of the broader April 6 reopening, Price said. On Monday the internet went down in the upper elementary wing, but with no fourth- or fifth-graders on campus yet, the issue would not impact learning.
“You are on campus and that’s awesome!” Principal Robert Hinchliffe said over the loudspeaker as the day officially began.
Hinchliffe said the reopening was somewhat bittersweet, as the new school had grand plans for its first classes of students.
“But we just have to find a different way,” he said.
One worry is dismissal, which will be done at multiple gates to accommodate social distancing, as well as the general traffic around the school. But staff have a plan in place, Hinchliffe said.
“The teachers will take care of everything. They’re professionals and they’ll make the best choices for the kids,” Hinchliffe said.
Schools have baked in numerous precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among students and then onto their families and others in community. In addition to social distancing and face masks for all, schools have improved ventilation and added special sickrooms where students showing symptoms will be isolated until their parents can pick them up.
In a news release Monday, Nevada Health Response also said the Division of Public and Behavioral Health has provided funding for more than 150 additional contact tracing staff from the Southern Nevada Health District to support the school district. The agency also is working with the state Department of Education to implement rapid COVID-19 testing at interested public, private and charter schools, which also is part of the district’s reopening plan.
Parents also are prohibited from entering school buildings under the plan.
Some mitigations are easy to spot from outside the schools.
At Goolsby Elementary School, which is returning about 69 percent of its 491 students this week, parents walked their children up to two side gates at the northwest Las Vegas school: one for preschool and kindergartners, and one for first- through third-graders.
The Cheung family was first to arrive, staking out a piece of sidewalk more than 30 minutes early.
Siu Cheung described the first day as “so exciting” and asked her 6-year-old son Cayden what he was most thrilled about. “Kindergarten!” he exclaimed.
Many parents stopped for a photo in front of an oversized welcome sign, including Lupe Tapia, who took a picture of her second grader, Ariel, in her tie-dye face mask.
Tapia said she’s glad her daughter is attending in-person classes, adding that they had discussed what precautions she needed to take.
‘She needed to go back’
“She needed to go back. She missed friends and the social environment,” she said. “She knows that she should wear the mask at all times.”
Before the bell rang, Principal Danny Eichelberger moved outside the main entrance, helping families find the correct gate for drop off, greeting students and answering questions.
The song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams played through speakers.
Physical education teacher Mike Shenkberger used a microphone to welcome the crowd, instructing the kids to walk slowly through the gate, find their teachers and line up on yellow dots 6 feet from their classmates.
“Good morning and welcome back to school,” he told them.
To their parents, Shenkberger added: “Parents, go enjoy your break. We know you did your time.”
At Wengert Elementary School in east Las Vegas, Superintendent Jesus Jara was on hand to welcome the 55 students as teachers waited to take them to their respective classrooms.
Tania Keys dropped off her kindergartner son, Marcus, for his first day of in-person elementary school.
“He’s been asking every day, ‘When am I going to go to school?’” she said. “YouTube videos for PE is not quite the same.”
She was nervous and said she’d worry “all day,” but was excited to get him back to school after seeing the toll that virtual instruction took on Marcus and his classmates. And she left him with one simple piece of advice.
“I told him to just please keep his mask on, and don’t forget to wash his hands.”
Third-grade teacher Shelby Mazza was planning to teach a hybrid class with half the students in the room and half the students online. She wanted to focus on building relationships between the two groups of students through a “class family” project.
“There’s no way to prepare, realistically. We had a week. When you think about how the schools so abruptly closed last year, there was no wrapping up the year, no getting ready for the next year type of thing. This week was just preparing for students to physically be here, and then mentally, a lot of praying,” she said. “We’re just trying to stay positive that the kids will make it all worth it.”
Jara and State Superintendent Jhone Ebert also joined Bell Elementary Principal Jaymes Aimetti to lead the Pledge of Allegiance at the central valley school.
Dwayne Dukes reflected on the past year after watching his son, JordanMicheal, hold the flag next to Aimetti to start his first day of in-person kindergarten.
“It set me back to make me love my family more,” he said. “I already loved them like crazy, but the setback made me sit home and really get into their lives. But it’s been the most beautiful, serious time in our lives.”
3K teachers on campus
Jara said at a midday news conference that around 3,000 teachers had returned to the classroom, with another 1,500 teaching virtually, adding that around 50 percent of all employees — or 20,000 — had received COVID-19 vaccine.
In addition to the 40,000 students on campuses, around 50,000 students opted for the Cohort C distance learning option, Jara said.
“Families will see that the mitigation strategies work. Our kids and staff will be safe, and we are expecting to see an increase in those students coming into face to face (instruction),” Jara said.
Cohort A students will attend Monday and Tuesday before switching roles with Cohort B students on Thursday and Friday.
John Lynn, parent to a third-grader in Cohort B option, reported no changes in the at-home portion of the week, adding that his initial concerns about how well the teacher’s internet would work from school had been alleviated.
Lynn said all-distance education had been a challenge for his son, and that he was eager for a five-day return.
“I’m most looking forward to consistency. Being with the teacher all day provides a level of consistency that wasn’t happening virtually,” Lynn said. “We’re blessed that my wife can stay home and support him. However, switching between who was “teaching” him was hard on everyone.”
At a news briefing on Friday, Andrew Bennett, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, noted that last school year 41 students were struck by vehicles while walking to or from schools.
“One of those resulted in a fatality and three of those (students) were left seriously injured, which resulted in life-changing injuries,” Bennett said. “When we talk about the importance of pedestrian safety, literally lives are on the line.”
Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at email@example.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.
Food distribution changes
The Clark County School District is making changes at its food distribution sites to accommodate on-campusinstruction. Beginning Monday, elementary schools will no longer serve as food distribution sites, with all children instead directed to middle school parking lots from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. or high school parking lots from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Elementary students who are in face-to-face instruction will have the option to receive meals for breakfast and lunch at their school on their assigned days in the classroom, according to the district.
— Aleksandra Appleton