‘Mummy arms’ and screening machines: Back to school, but not back to normal

  • Reid Mekus uses “mummy arms” to check his distance from first grade classmate Avery Leatherberry, right, as they wait to have their temperatures checked before entering Richards School in Newport, N.H., on the first day of class Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. Second from left is first-grader Connor Rogers. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news — James M. Patterson

  • Ashley Smith, left, of Newport, completes a health screening with her daughter Pyper 6, right, through her phone before dropping her off at Richards School in Newport, N.H., for the first day of classes, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. The questionnaire is a prevention measure for the pandemic required by the school, along with masks and temperature checks. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jessica Rothbart, of Newport, wipes away a tear after dropping off her five-year-old twins Kain and Kairi for their first day of kindergarten at Richards School in Newport, N.H., Tuesday, Sept., 8, 2020. The twins are the last of her six children to start school. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Richards School psychologist Paul Donahue, left, and special education teacher Jessica Boudreau welcome a student arriving for the first day of school in Newport, N.H., Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/8/2020 10:14:42 PM
Modified: 9/8/2020 10:14:34 PM

NEWPORT — Drop-off at Richards School has long been a bit of a traffic snarl, and that was no different at 8 a.m. on Tuesday. Cars were backed up School Street to Beech Street, and from there to Winter and Summer streets.

But the familiar line of cars led to a distinctly unfamiliar scene. Parents, who used to walk their youngest children to their classrooms, especially on the first day, were instead confined to their cars. A small team of greeters, including Principal Phil Banios, shepherded students from the sidewalk up the steps to the pre-K-to-fifth-grade school. On the paved apron outside, teachers held signs with their names, not always a big help for those who haven’t yet learned to read.

“Hi! How are you?! You’re so cute!” Kim Rosendahl, a behavioral interventionist at Richards, said to a small boy with a backpack and a lunchbox. He was new to the school and didn’t remember his teacher’s name. “The first-grade teachers are standing right over there and they’ll tell you.”

Still unsure, the boy hesitated and Rosendahl deputized an older girl to lead him up to where the first-grade teachers stood.

Opening day jitters might have been slightly magnified by the strange procedures — wearing masks, leaving parents at the curb, keeping friends at arm’s length, lining up outside — but children, their parents and school staff seemed ready for school to resume after a break of 176 days. Schools opened across the Upper Valley on Tuesday.

“They’re excited,” Jessica Rothbart said of her six children. Four of them were starting back at school Tuesday, including her 5-year-old twins, who started kindergarten at Richards. Her two eldest will be home-schooled this year, but not because of the pandemic; studying at home is a better fit, she said. “We’re just hoping that things stay open.”

Rothbart stood downhill from the school, hoping to stay out of her twins’ line of sight while still keeping an eye on them.

“They’re handling it better than I thought they would,” she said. She’s president of the Richards PTO, and sometimes subs in the school, so her littlest ones have seen it before. “With all the changes in the traffic patterns (inside the building), it’s been kind of hard for them to understand what’s going on,” she said.

Last week, the Newport schools brought students in for several half-day orientations, where school staff could show them the protocols. Elementary students must stay three feet apart, and staff showed them how to hold up “mummy arms” to gauge the right distance between themselves and others.

“I think we’re working hard to make sure we’re following all guidelines to make sure everyone is safe — the students, the community and staff,” Banios, the principal, said outside in the morning sun.

The district has improved the school’s ventilation and put “strong sanitization protocols” in place, Banios said.

Tables in the cafeteria have plexiglass shields, he added, to keep children farther apart and to limit how far droplets can travel.

Unlike many Upper Valley elementary schools, Richards isn’t starting the year with an outdoor classroom in place, though school officials are planning to set one up, Banios said. Teachers have to sign up, he said, “because there’s only one” outdoor classroom.

About 80% of the school’s students will be present for in-school instruction, with the remaining 20% learning remotely, and three teachers will be handling their schooling in an effort to ensure that remote learners will get the same education as the students in the building.

It took about 20 minutes for the traffic to clear; not bad, Rothbart said.

When they lined up to go into the building Tuesday, children walked up to a “screening machine.” Each child pressed their forehead to a spot on the machine that read their temperature, then held out a hand for a dollop of sanitizer, also from the machine.

Before even arriving at school, parents must use an app on their phones to check their children in, Banios said.

Once inside, children find an educational philosophy at odds with what they might be used to. For art classes, for example, each child will have their own kit of materials that are not to be passed to other students.

“It’s the opposite of what we usually teach our kids,” Banios said. Sharing and physical proximity are out; keeping to oneself and physical distancing are in.

Parents weren’t allowed in the building, which is also the case in other districts; neither were journalists.

After the last child entered, Banios said, “All right,” and clapped his hands. “Good job everybody.” Then he and the few other staff still outside trooped through the door to start the new year.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.

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