LANCASTER – Students’ first day back to school at General Sherman Junior High School was also the first day in the new building, and their first day actually coming to school since March.

Gov. Mike DeWine ordered schools closed in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic was climbing. Schools transitioned to remote learning, with students and teachers working on lessons by computer.

Construction on the new building on Election House Road started in August 2018 and was completed on schedule, which Principal Charles Page said was good. Not just to have a better building, but one that can handle the needs of bringing students back to school during a global pandemic

“If this building wasn’t ready, I don’t think we could have brought them back. We have so much more room for the kids in the hallways and the classrooms. There’s better ventilation, there’s actually air conditioning,” Page said. “We’ve got them back to where they belong, where they can get their best education in the best environment.”

Page’s sentiment was echoed by staff members. As the buses and parents pulled in and dropped off students before the 7:30 a.m. bell Tuesday, teachers exchanged greetings with kids, peering over the masks and helping direct the kids through the new building.

Page said he couldn’t be happier to have the kids back at school, all things considered.

“We all missed the kids. I told one boy as he ran past, it was good to see him and I’d missed him, and he just told me he’d missed me more. We didn’t get into this business to teach from behind Zoom screens. Most of my time is in the hallways, seeing these kids and making sure they’re cared for,” Page said. “When schools were closed, the teachers were thrown into the deep end as they had to switch to remote teaching, but they did great.”

“It’ll be different for a while, we’re nowhere near a normal school year, with all the safety protocols we have to take into account, but it’s a start.”

Besides maintaining six feet between students in classrooms and wearing masks throughout the day, Page said there are also new “traffic patterns” students need to follow in the hallways, indicated by arrows on the floor. Stairwells are all one direction, so even if a student’s next class is at the foot of the stairs, if that stairway is for going up, that student will need to go all the way around.

In an effort to reduce kids bunching up in the hallways, students also can’t use their lockers. They’re allowed to bring their book bags with them. Signs on the bathrooms indicate no more than four occupants at a time. Water fountains have been wrapped to limit use, but Page said students can use the water bottle fill stations. Those are touchless, and students are permitted to carry clear water bottles with them.

At lunch, half the students are allowed to go outside and take off their masks, as long as they maintain their distance. Then the next half gets to switch.

Page called the restrictions stringent, but necessary if school has a chance to go back to normal.

“At the orientation days last week, the kids did great with their masks. We didn’t have any issues, and we expect them to adjust to the routine quickly. We just hope school can go back to normal, but this is one way to get us there,” he said.

Ryan Gramlich, a social studies teacher, said bringing the students back to school is a “head versus heart” decision.

“We haven’t seen these kids since March. We want to see them here, so we can give them their best education, but we also want them to be safe. I feel like the administration has taken great pains to make sure we’re using the best practices as a district to ensure their education and safety,” he said.

Lancaster City Schools is using a blended model, with half the student body attending school while the other half is learning remotely. The two halves alternate, depending on days of the week.

That means class sizes are effectively cut in half. Gramlich’s first class on Tuesday had seven students.

“There’s a benefit to that, teachers will be able to focus on individual students a little bit easier, and kids will probably be able to have better discussions. We’ve also got technology which allows us engage and interact more,” he said. “The kids have their Chromebooks, which they’ve already been using to work together. Teachers need to work on building relationships and experiences with their students so they can work well outside of class, too.”

“But I told my wife 100 times, I’m excited to be back, I’m excited to have the kids back and I know my fellow teachers are excited to be back. I don’t want to be optimistic that we’re heading back to normalcy, but this feels like a first step towards it.”

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