ENID, Okla. — Jamie Jarnigan stood eagerly at the front doors of Hayes Elementary School on Tuesday morning to welcome students back to school for the first time since Nov. 5.
Some students ran from their parents’ cars to give their principal a hug for the first time in months and tell her how much they missed going to school, as they haven’t been inside school walls since the school transitioned to distance learning Nov. 9 due to COVID-19-positive cases.
With students back in the building and the sound of children filling the halls once more, Jarnigan said everything felt right again.
“We really felt like it was the first day of school again — it was that same excitement,” Jarnigan said. “The kids were just so happy to be back.”
Enid Public Schools announced that all schools would transition to virtual learning on Nov. 16, which ended up extending throughout the first semester, due to a rise in COVID-19 cases in Garfield County.
Tuesday was the first day back in person for EPS students and teachers, including students who did distance learning last semester, along with entirely new students, adding to the first day feeling.
“It was a whirlwind but in the best way,” said Garfield Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Abigail Frank. “Usually, the first day after a break is notoriously really sleepy and slow, but I feel like today just had a different energy because we were all just grateful to see each other in person.”
The ratios of virtual enrollment to total students enrolled for EPS are 47-422 for pre-K students, 174-3,289 for elementary students, 165-1,613 for middle school students and 319-2,088 for high school students, according to EPS communications specialist Miranda Krug Johnson.
Getting back into a routine was refreshing, Frank said. At first, she said going back to a regular school day was weird, but once they all got into the groove, it was comforting. She never imagined she’d be teaching through a pandemic, but as the semester goes on, Frank said she thinks she and her students will bounce back to the in-person curriculum because they’re resilient.
Tuesday was the first time Glenwood Elementary School third-grade teacher Caroline Thornton had seen her 23 students in person due to being on maternity leave since August.
Thornton came back to teach her students online right as the school made the transition to distance learning. She said being back in school and getting to see her students face-to-face brought back some normalcy.
“It’s just nice to see their faces and be able to connect that way, and I think the kids are happy to see each other, see their friends and just connect because they haven’t been able to face-to-face,” Thornton said.
Jarnigan said something that made her smile was how much students actually missed about being back to brick-and-mortar. She overheard one student who was excited to just be able to check out library books again, and one of Thornton’s students said near the end of the day that they were happy to be back in the classroom with friends and teachers, which made her feel excited about this semester.
Usually before class begins, Frank, who’s been looped in with some of her students since fourth grade, would do a handshake with her 24 students at the beginning of the day, and while virtual, one of her students asked if she would remember the handshake when they got back.
“When she got to the door, we’re both super hyped up, so excited, but we’re so focused on getting the handshake right,” Frank said. “But it was like we hadn’t even skipped a beat — we still had it, and just being able to do that and have those special moments with each individual student (was a favorite part of my day).”
Jane Johnson, director of human resources and communications for the district, heard from various other EPS principals that the first day back went “fabulously.”
“(The principals said) that they were so excited to have their kids back, and their kids were all excited to be there,” Johnson said. “One principal told me she thought a teacher was going to do backflips going down the hallway waiting for her kids to get there this morning.”
In December, the EPS Board of Education passed a revision to the district’s COVID-19 re-entry plan, which changed how administrators determine whether to close schools.
Under the new plan, decisions will be made on a site-by-site basis rather than following the state Department of Education’s recommendation to follow weekly state health reports on community spread in Oklahoma counties.
The new criteria for whether a school will close are if the school has enough faculty and staff present to effectively run the school; or if the building is under 30% of students, faculty and staff affected by COVID-19.
Johnson said no issues arose on the first day, and Sherrie Hendrie, principal of Coolidge Elementary School, said she couldn’t have asked for a better day.
As for the rest of the semester, Hendrie said she feels hopeful. She said parents have been good about calling Coolidge to let teachers and staff know that a child has been exposed to the virus, which helps the school with quarantine and isolation protocols.
EPS’ educational re-entry plan calls for home-self assessments that answer questions about travel to high-risk areas, temperature and other symptoms and exposure to others diagnosed with COVID-19. Parents, though not required to turn the checklist in at school sites, will be reminded regularly about completing it at home before sending kids to school.
Students who remain home due to symptoms have access to class assignments online, and parents are asked to call the school if their child has symptoms. If a child becomes ill at school, staff will follow an established protocol on how to proceed. Calls will also be made to other people if a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19.
Masks are provided to students and staff from EPS and are required to be worn in all indoor spaces and strongly encouraged outside, and mask exemptions and accommodations are listed in the re-entry plan.
Schools also have implemented increased cleaning and disinfecting measures in bathrooms, classrooms, offices and isolation areas, buses and cafeterias.
Thornton said with all the safety measures in place and extra hand washing and sanitizing, she feels safe in the classroom with her students. Hendrie said she also feels comfortable with how the school is operating and the procedure for when someone gets the virus or is exposed.
“We have a good system — we know what questions to ask now when parents call in to talk about symptoms, and we know what questions to ask about when they were exposed or when did they start having symptoms,” Hendrie said. “We’ve gotten a better feel for the virus and how it works, and … We can make sure that we take the appropriate steps to contact trace.”
Though she said going virtual was the right thing to do at the time, Hendrie is ready, prepared and excited to be back in person this semester.
“I feel like this was the right thing to do — coming back,” Hendrie said. “We have protocols in place that will carry us through the end of the year, is what my hope is.”