A NEW NORMAL: G-C welcomes students back to school with a wary eye on COVID-19

Brittany Meek's first assignments for her third-graders at Harris Elementary came with a reminder about the unprecedented conditions in which school opened on Thursday. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

GREENFIELD — Brandy Davenport looked like a mama duck leading her three little ducklings up the sidewalk on their way to Harris Elementary School Thursday morning.

A staff member greeted them warmly as the three tiny kindergartners approached their new school.

Five-year-old Peyton turned back to give her mom one last hug before heading down the walk alongside her brothers, Roger and Mason.

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Davenport teared up as her kids walked away.

She’s also mom to a seventh-grader at Greenfield Central Junior High School, so she knows the drill of saying goodbye on the first day of school. But this year was different.

Not only was she saying goodbye to three sweet-faced kindergartners at once, she was also watching them disappear into a sea of faces covered in masks, heading into an unprecedented year.

“I’m worried about how this school year is going to go. I’m worried about how long the school is going to stay open before they’re going to close down,” said Davenport, who is thankful to have a babysitter on call if necessary.

Greenfield-Central is the first school district in the county to head back to school, putting to the test administrators’ carefully devised plan to deal with the pandemic. Southern Hancock and Eastern Hancock students head back to school on Monday, Aug. 3. Mt. Vernon has pushed back its start date to Aug. 17.

On Thursday, July 30, The mood was upbeat among students and teachers as they filed into Harris Elementary.

Speech pathologist Shelley Finet was energetically welcoming kids in the car line outside the school as parents dropped their children off.

“We want to show these guys how excited and enthusiastic we are about welcoming them back today,” said Finet, who is starting her 32nd year at Harris.

Even though this year is like nothing she’s seen before, Finet said she’s excited about getting back to school and seeing her students after the extended break.

While she admits there’s some anxiety among the staff about returning during a pandemic, she and fellow educators are determined to make it a great year for students, she said.

“It’s all about making the kids feel welcome, and more importantly, making them feel loved. That’s our principal’s mission,” she said. “We will make the best of every day and every minute that we have with the kiddos.”

Brandee Henderson was also a little anxious when dropping her 6-year-old brother off at the elementary school.

“I’m just a little nervous about everything going on this year, wondering how this is going to go. Is he going to be able to go to lunch, go to recess? Will he have his mask on the whole day? But I think everything will be OK,” said Henderson, who has custody of her brother Branden McDonald, who is starting first grade.

Her sister Brooke Henderson was a comforting presence as they waved goodbye to Branden, who was sporting a face mask covered in apples and science symbols. He hadn’t even mentioned the face masks or any fears about a virus, they said. He was just happy to be back at school.

“He was both nervous and excited about starting first grade. He’s been jumping around,” said Brandee Henderson.

By lunchtime, superintendent Harold Olin had already visited seven of the district’s eight schools, and he liked what he saw.

“It’s been a good morning. Everyone seems happy to be jumping back into a routine,” said Olin, who knows that not all teachers were eager to get back into the classroom during a pandemic.

“I won’t say it’s 100%, but a vast majority have been supportive,” Olin said.

The corporation has purchased face masks, plastic glass shields and foggers that can sanitize an entire classroom in 30 seconds, among other safety precautions.

“We want to make sure we have an environment that’s conducive to learning and that we can alleviate some of those anxieties,” Olin said Thursday. “We’ve had to work through a few obstacles over the last couple of weeks, but I think we’ve been able to work through most of those.”

The real test will come when students or staff start to test positive for COVID-19 at some point in the future, he said.

He’s hopeful that entire schools or the entire district won’t have to close, but that outbreaks can be contained through careful monitoring. Students are spaced apart in classrooms and given assigned seats, which should help with tracking, he said.

“We will try to narrow that focus down as much as possible,” Olin said.

“It might just be a small group of student in class, it might be a classroom, it may be an entire school, but I think we’re going to have to go through a few of these to see that our response is appropriate in stopping the spread before some of those anxieties are put to rest.”

If students were to test positive for COVID-19, or were found to be exposed, they would be required to quarantine at home for two weeks and to learn virtually online until their return.

At Greenfield-Central High School, Principal Jason Cary said students were being compliant with wearing masks and social distancing, and they seemed happy to be back among friends.

“Everyone found their classrooms, and the kids were so polite and patient. I know our staff is very excited to be back, even with our new normal,” he said.

At Harris Elementary, Principal Sarah Greulich said the first day back seemed like a tremendous success.

“Honestly it’s going super fabulous,” she said. “Everything that we had hoped for has just gone really well, so all that thought planning and time that we took behind the scenes are paying off today,” she said.

The only phone calls she had fielded from parents were positive and encouraging. “We’ve made some calls confirming transportation today, and parents are saying ‘You guys are doing a great job. Keep up the good work,’” she said.

Since coping with a pandemic is ever changing, Greulich said she and fellow administrators will stay abreast of the latest developments as reported by the state departments of health and education for guidance.

“We’re willing to be here because we know this is important to our community and to our families, but we want to be as smart as possible about it,” she said.

Bus driver Charles Walker was taking the unusual back-to-school day in stride Thursday, as he dropped off and picked up kids from Greenfield Intermediate School.

His bus was less full than usual, limited to just 44 kids, all of whom were wearing masks.

As they stepped off the bus Thursday morning, Walker wished them all well, reminded them to wear their masks and to be safe.

Since safety precautions were being taken, Walker wasn’t nervous about transporting kids in the midst of a health crisis.

“I’m too old to be nervous,” he quipped.