Seated at desks spaced appropriately apart and shielded by tri-folded cardboard, the facemasked first graders paid close attention to the words of Carolyn Cesar.
“What does it mean to stay in your own personal space?,” began Cesar, referencing one of a series of colorful placards near the front of her classroom.
“It means that it’s your space,” was an immediate response.
“So, if I’m in class and I have a friend sitting next to me, can I maybe touch her desk,?” Cesar continued. “No: we have to keep our hands to ourselves, right?”
More instruction followed, on the frequent need for hand sanitizing, wearing a mask that covers the mouth and nose, the necessity of greeting others from a distance, and so forth.
Outside of Cesar’s classroom, the network of hallways is evenly divided by tape, with bright green arrows upon the wall indicating the proper one-way flow of foot traffic.
Before students were allowed into the building, each underwent a temperature check outside exterior classroom doors that henceforth will serve as entrances.
Formerly, school safety guidelines directed all students to enter and exit a building at the same location. That has now changed, as has the manner in which parents or guardians drop off and pick up children.
In times of a pandemic, the word “safety” has taken on a much different meaning, as witnessed by the first day of school at Pueblo School for Arts and Sciences Jones Campus.
On Thursday, PSAS became the first school in the county to open its network to students seeking traditional face-to-face instruction.
At both the Jones Campus and Fulton Heights site, students in first through eighth grades bid farewell to loved ones before beginning a school year that will, at least in the early going, be unlike any other in their young lives.
Dave Martin, interim executive director of PSAS, a charter school authorized by Pueblo School District 60, said a parental survey indicated robust support for a return to face-to-face instruction after the spring semester was concluded remotely.
With COVID-19’s unwelcome presence still an issue, Martin said PSAS leadership elected to re-open schools while offering families the option of online instruction.
This year, PSAS expanded its network by adding a dedicated E Learning Academy for students who prefer to learn at home. Under the direction of Efrain Tapia, it will be the academy’s role to service the whole of the PSAS student body should an outbreak once again necessitate the shuttering of buildings.
But Martin and the leadership team have taken every possible precaution to ensure that students, as well as staff, can remain healthy and in school.
“We were hopeful that we could open in person and had planned on it, but there was always that possibility that we wouldn’t be able to,” Martin said Thursday morning outside the Jones Campus building.
“We are cautiously optimistic, but we are happy to be back. We put in a lot of hard work — the principals and administrative team worked all but five days this entire summer — and our main goal is to keep our students safe.”
That objective is centered around state directives and guidelines which spell out protective measures to be taken, as well as the proper course of action should a student or staff member develop a fever, or become ill, or in a worst case scenario, test positive for the coronavirus.
Inside each PSAS classroom, students are grouped into cohorts of 25 or less, with desks situated at least three feet apart. Soon, three-way plexiglass dividers will replace the cardboard foldouts on those desks.
Frequent hand sanitizing and washing is required, with the need for social distancing constantly stressed.
“Students in the fourth grade and above are required to wear masks,” said Jones Campus Principal Kim McLaughlin. “And for third grade and below, we are strongly encouraging it.
“But we will be doing a lot of outside time with the kids, so they can take their masks off and get some fresh air. We’ve designated outdoor classrooms and starting next week, will likely eat lunch outside.”
For parents, the first day of school is always an emotional time. In 2020, however, seeing their little ones off into uncharted educational waters has upped that emotional factor significantly
“I’d be lying if I said I’m not apprehensive, nervous and stressed out about it,” said Charlene Valdez, mother of Jones Campus fourth-grader Sofia Garcia. “It was a hard decision to make and I’m still kind of unsure. But here she is and here we are.”
Valdez said Sofia was eager to exchange remote learning for the familiar confines of the classroom.
“She is absolutely ready,” Valdez said. “She wants to be here: she misses her teachers, she misses her friends. And I think that’s one reason she needs to be back: that social aspect.”
In addition to taking in the litany of safety and health directives now in place, PSAS students will spend the initial days of the new year becoming familiar with the Schoology digital learning platform.
In the event of an outbreak that leads to the implementation of full scale remote learning, Martin said PSAS doesn’t want to get caught off guard.
“We want our students to be prepared if we have to go remote,” he said.
Regardless of the platform, schools will return to being accountable to the state in terms of performance, which Martin sees as another incentive for in-person instruction.
Shortly after the school doors opened Thursday, an alarming, and erroneous, social media post declaring that “any student with a temperature will be pulled and taken directly to a testing site” found its way onto McLaughlin’s phone.
In a pandemic, McLaughlin said it’s imperative to seek out only verified sources.
“Don’t believe everything you read on the internet or Facebook,” she said. “We encourage families to look at websites for the Colorado Department of Education and health departments. They have very clear guidelines that we are following.
“And contact your school administrator for the most up-to-date and correct information.”
(Per guidelines, a student who develops a fever or becomes ill will be removed from class and placed in a secure room until a parent or guardian arrives to pick the child up.)
Currently, 170 PSAS students are beginning the school year remotely, with others electing to take advantage of a home-school option.
At the Jones Campus, enrollment is 450, with 250 at Fulton Heights. Like the Jones Campus, Fulton Heights is now a K-8 institution.
At Fulton Heights, Drew Hirshon is the new principal, having replaced Anthony Martinez.
Chieftain reporter Jon Pompia can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at twitter.com/jpompia. Help support local journalism by subscribing to the Chieftain at chieftain.com/subscribenow