First day of VCS’ very different school year

A partition separates seventh-grade students Jayce Kirkland, left, and Ellie Lazdowski during their life sciences class at The Villages Charter Middle School.

Students were excited to come back to The Villages Charter School, and most parents were, too. Educators were at least as excited. “It was absolutely music to our ears to hear children here in the building,” said Sandy Nielsen, vice principal of The Villages Charter Elementary School at the Intermediate Center for second- and third-graders. As she alighted from her mother’s car with her backpack and a book in hand, fifth-grader Kyra Duest said it felt great to be back at school. “I finally get an actual education and not just sit around all summer,” Kyra said. She said she’d been reading a lot all summer. A few students gleefully greeted their friends on their way into school. Fifth-grader Chase Brown said he thought it was good to be back at school. “I’m tired of being stuck in the house,” Chase said. His mother, Ashley Watkins, said she was a little nervous with the pandemic still not over. However, most parents said they felt good about bringing their children to school, especially those who saw safety procedures during Buffalo Adventures summer camps and the two-week Camp Innovation.

“I’m confident,” parent Elman Fallego said. “I trust the school.”

For all students, it was a day of getting to know new teachers and classmates, and learning new expectations and procedures.

Students being dropped off put on their masks and had their temperatures checked before they got out of their parents’ cars.

Half a dozen or more teachers assistants and other staff members, and usually the school resource officer, were spaced out to quickly take temperatures in front of each of the charter school’s three elementary buildings, the middle and high school to keep the line of cars flowing smoothly.

Once inside, students learned new rules for social distancing, including one-way hallways and staircases, and when they are required to wear masks and when they are far enough apart to remove them.

Students practiced new routines for hand-washing and hand-sanitizing throughout the day.

“It went remarkably well,” Villages High School Principal Rob Grant said about the first day of school. “The kids wore masks and they socially distanced as well as they could.”

Hallways were marked with where students should stand.

Grant said he already had heard from parents who appreciated the school’s plans and the process of taking temperatures.

Second- and third-graders also read and write about hand hygiene, Nielsen said.

“In our writing instructional program we use, the first topic for second grade is hand-washing, so it fits right in,” she said. “They’ll read a story about hand-washing and then do paired writing about it.”

Students are taught to read a text and from that they are asked to explain why the topic is important and to provide evidence from what they read and something from their own understanding or experience, Nielsen said. Before children write, their class discusses what they read and their teacher models examples of what they might write.

“Years ago, we probably would not have thought second-graders were capable of that, but they get lots of modeling and practice,” she said.

Last year, she said, she stopped in the hallway to chat with a second-grader who said, without being prompted, “I know that because of the evidence in the text,” Nielsen said. Students begin writing like that in kindergarten in preparation for state writing tests in fourth and fifth grades.

For the 17% of students who started their first day of school at home on Buffalo eLearning and the 5% who started VCS Online, it also was a somewhat typical first day of school — learning about class standards, procedures, routines and teachers’ expectations, said Patrick Murphy, curriculum, instruction, assessment and technology supervisor. A few needed to reset passwords or get help with other technical hiccups, also as expected, he said.

Students and teachers were using computer software programs including Google Meets and chatting, and students were watching videos of lessons, Murphy said.

“We’re connecting with the kids,” he said.

The first day went as expected, both in terms of technology and for the majority of students on campus for traditional instruction.

Fourth- and fifth-graders were spaced out in the cafeteria, and lunch went well, Murphy said.

Lunch routines have changed, with two lunch lines instead of three last year, elementary Principal LeAnne Yerk said. Salads are now in the regular lunch line, she told students during the morning announcements right after the Pledge of Allegiance and birthday wishes for a few students.

Yerk said the car line moved smoothly in front of the Fourth- and Fifth-Grade Center. The line was empty two minutes before the first bell was scheduled at 7:50 a.m.

Students with full backpacks and many carrying bags of extra school supplies for their teachers were eager to get inside.

As teachers begin their curriculum, they also go over procedures, such as how students log on to their Chromebook computers, which are issued to every student at the charter school.

“Very soon, teachers will introduce how to get on Google Classroom, so if we do have to, at any time, return to distance learning, we are prepared,” Nielsen said.

In March, when schools first closed, the charter school was one of the first in the state to be able to transition to distance learning two days after spring break and keep everyone connected through the end of the school year. Now teachers have had all spring to practice and the summer to plan and prepare. They’re ready for such a contingency if it happens again, Murphy said.

But digital learning from home is not the first choice for most educators or families.

“We want everybody here and healthy,” Nielsen said.

Staff writer Dayna Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5408, or