Not only was in-person learning back after being on hiatus since last March due to the coronavirus pandemic. It also marked the opening of the new Monmouth Memorial School.
Regional School Unit 2 member towns approved the $26.7 million building project in 2017. The last beam was laid for the building in July 2019, and while the coronavirus impacted last school year, it did not create a delay in the school being ready to open for the start of school this year.
Beginning the school year by having to sort out coronavirus protocols fit in well with the new routines already needed for students and staff learning the new school, said Principal Mel Burnham Barter.
“There was a lot to consider, but when the kids got here, it went pretty smooth,” she said. “The staff worked so hard to make sure that the spaces were learning spaces for the kids that they felt comfortable in. The teachers did a lot behind the scenes.”
RSU 2 opted to start the school year with a hybrid learning model in which the 400 students of Monmouth Memorial were divided into three cohorts. The A and B cohorts will attend in person for part of the week and learn remotely for the rest of it. Cohort C is a full-time remote learning option.
Burnham Barter said the average cohort size is about 14 students, depending on class side and grade.
In the event a student is exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, a nurse’s room in the new school provides space where that child can be isolated.
Monmouth Memorial School is for grades prekindergarten through eight. Grade clusters of students — prekindergarten through second, third through fifth and sixth through eighth — each has a wing at the school, which helps keep students socially distanced.
“We have staggered how the students sit, so if one sits on the left side of the table, the behind student will sit to the right,” Burnham Barter said. “Then we can clean and have the next group of students sit on the opposite sides. The kids have been good about knowing what way to face.”
For students who change classes, such as middle schoolers, she said, the sixth through eighth grades have been split into two teams, with four teachers per team. When classes change, the two teams have staggered times so they are not bumping into each other in the hallway.
In addition, students are guided to travel in one direction and the doors through which they enter have been configured so no group overlaps.
“Before they leave, everything is wiped down,” Burnham Barter said, “and tables are split so the next student sits in the opposite seat.”
The new gymnasium has been turned into a lunch room with individual desks, all facing one direction and 3 feet apart. There are five periods of lunch per day in either the cafeteria, gym or classroom. In the past, there were four, Burnham Barter said, but because of spacing and size, they had to increase it to five.
To enter lunch, the students will follow one direction and either grab food from the cafeteria and sit down, or sit down with their own lunch. Eating is the only time that students are able to remove their masks.
“The kids have been amazing,” Burnham Barter said after the first week of school. “We may have to remind them to not turn around, but they chat with the students next to them. Once they went to lunch a couple times, they got in the routine.”
Since lunch is in the gym, the physical education period has been moved outside in the afternoon for the older students and online for the “littles,” as Burnham Barter calls them.
For online physical education class, teacher Jane Belanger may teach a concept to the kids, like sensory paths, and have them create their own video to send into Belanger while at home.
Also new to the school is a “Makers Room,” a room attached to the library that allows students to use technology to learn through green screens, robotics and 3D printers.
“We designed this space to integrate traditional literacy and 21st century literacy,” Burnham Barter said. “The students can have hands-on days, with tech ed or crafting and building. The teacher can stand in the doorway and supervise students from the library or in the Makers Room.”
In the library, students are still able to check out books, despite the coronavirus. Older students can browse the library book catalog online and reserve books to take home. To return books, students drop them off in a box outside the library, where the books can sit and be sanitized.
Burnham Barter said she has been “really fortunate” with the support from the teachers and staff, and she credited them for coming up with most of the new safety procedures.
“It’s certainly been an opportunity to be creative,” she said.