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Mount Vernon schools begin to reopen after nine-month closure

Krystal Mims, teacher at Edward Williams

Nine months after the Mount Vernon City School District school buildings closed their doors because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the district’s younger students began arriving to see their teachers and friends. The district started its first phase of reopening on Monday, November 16th for families who have chosen in-person instruction for its pre-K to grade 3 students.

Upon entry into the buildings, the masked students learned how to scan their temperature and maintain social distance in the hallways.

Once inside the classrooms, students – sitting in desks spaced more than 6 feet apart – learned how to wash their hands and use sanitizer before beginning the day’s lessons. They were then joined by their remote-learning classmates.

Superintendent Dr. Kenneth R. Hamilton – who visited some of the district’s schools in the morning – said he was pleased that he had been seeing students consistently wear their masks and felt the reopening was a success.

“Kids needs to meet their teachers,” Dr. Hamilton said. “That was my Number 1 concern with giving students and parents the opportunity to develop the relationship that comes with being in person and face-to-face. I fully acknowledge that we may have to close at some point because of the trend of infection numbers. I just wanted to get kids back in school and have some sense of normalcy going.”

Edward Williams third-grade student Tristan Myers admitted he was a little nervous about coming back, but he was looking forward to seeing his friends. His mother, however, was confident in the school and Principal Dr. Crystal Waterman.

“I’m OK so far because the principal has given us a lot of updates of what is going to take place,” said Georgia Dunbar, who was bringing Tristan to school. “So, I am very confident. I trust her judgment.”

Dr. Waterman said the school opening was “very smooth” because of the new procedures in place, the staff scripted out a plan for the day.

“Everyone on the team came on board. They were super supportive. Everyone just did their part. Parents seemed very comfortable,” she said.

Briana Lopez, also a third-grade student in Williams School, was looking forward to seeing her friends and learning. “I’m looking forward to learning new things, like math,” Briana said. “I also like writing a lot in my notebook.”

Briana is in teacher Krystal Mims’ class. “I am so excited. I love to see their faces in person,” Ms. Mims said. “I’m looking forward to just teaching them. Having them in person and being able to work with them one-on-one.”

Ann Marie Maraj brought her son, Dinesh Maraj, to Hamilton School. He has been home with his college-age sister where they both have been learning remotely.

“She has been taking care of him,” Ann Marie Maraj said. “It is difficult. She also has to be online when he has to be online so he isn’t getting the time that he deserves and he runs into problems with the computer, being a 7-year-old. … So it is hard to keep a handle on it, especially when I’m working and his father is working as well. It is what it is. We try to do our best.”

She said it was a hard decision to bring him back to school and admitted she is a little anxious but she is trusting the teachers and staff to keep everyone safe.

At Holmes School, teachers Nadine Shields-Alcalde and Melissa White met their students wearing matching T-shirts that reflected what the first day would be like. The T-shirts read “Masked and Ready for Third Grade.”

“Third-graders, we are ready to start the year with our lovely students,” Alcalde said. “We are masked and ready. Social distance here we come.”

“We are so excited to welcome the students back and we cannot wait to hear the laughter and the joy in their voices,” said Holmes Principal Danielle Marrow.

Barring a change in circumstances with COVID, the district will extend reopening to include grades 4-8 beginning on November 30th and grades 9-12 beginning on December 14th in a two-cohort system.

The district is giving Pre-K to grade 8 students the opportunity to have four days a week of face-to-face instruction in the classroom. Wellness Wednesdays will remain for Pre-K to grade 8 students. The day is dedicated to following up with students on their academics as well as their social-emotional health. Teachers will also use this day for lesson planning and analyzing assessments and data to identify gaps in learning and plan strategies to address those gaps.

At the high school level, students will receive in-person instruction and remote instruction on alternating Wednesdays, based on their cohort, for a total of five days of in-person instruction out of every 10 weekdays.

The district was able to provide this extensive level of in-person instruction because 50 percent of families in the district have chosen remote-only instruction for their children. If the percentages of in-person and remote students change, the district may need to consider a different learning model.

These plans are also, of course, subject to change based on circumstances, like a peak in the COVID infection rate, which are beyond the district’s control.  The district appreciates parents remaining as flexible as possible and will continue to provide updates.