The first day of the 2020-2021 school year for West Hartford Public Schools was Sept. 8, 2020.
By Ronni Newton
There were the usual wide-eyed and somewhat tentative kindergartners, and confident high school seniors happy to see their friends, as West Hartford Public Schools reopened for in-person learning after being closed for the past 25 weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s good to be back,” said a group of Hall High School seniors as they headed into the building. As is the tradition, girls wore their “SENIORS” t-shirts, which many of them had personalized.
All wore masks or other face coverings, but they were still smiling.
“It’s different, but it’s good,” said Maryanne Seguro, administrative assistant for the Athletic Department at Hall, who was taking photos of students returning for the school’s social media pages.
Only half of the students who are attending school in person had their first day on Tuesday. The Red Team, those whose last names begin with the letters A-K, attend in person on Tuesday and Wednesday, and a second first day of school will take place Thursday, Sept. 10, as those on the Blue Team (last names L-Z) make their return to the buildings.
“It was remarkably smooth, smoother than I would have expected,” Superintendent Tom Moore said late Tuesday morning after visiting a number of the schools. “I was just happy to see the kids.”
Buses often run late on the first day of school as drivers learn new routes, but on Tuesday were “remarkably on time, though sparsely filled,” Moore said, noting that many parents traditionally prefer to drive their kids on the first day of school. He expected more students to take the bus home.
Parent drop-offs at the school went smoothy as well, Moore said, and West Hartford Police officers were a visible presence outside the buildings, ensuring safe traffic flow.
At Sedgwick Middle School, one of the buses had just two passengers. As the seventh- and eighth-grade girls headed into the school, both said they were excited.
“Lots of kids were walking and on bikes,” said Anne, a crossing guard who was happy to be back at her station at the intersection of Boulevard and Wardwell Road near Sedgwick Middle School.
Kindergartner Rachel Chandler held the hands of both of her parents, Meredith and Alan Chandler, as they approached Morley Elementary School well before the day was set to begin.
“It’s her first day of school ever, so we thought we’d take our time,” Meredith Chandler said.
“Everyone is so happy to be back,” Morley first-grade teacher Matt Downey said. “We’re all glad to have some sense of schedule.”
West Hartford elementary schools typically have flagpole ceremonies to start the school year, but that tradition has been skipped this year because physical distancing would be a challenge. Students still lined up outside with their teachers, but at staggered entrances to avoid a large crowd. Parents bid their children goodbye outside, rather than entering the school buildings.
Moore said that roughly 16% of families in the district have choosen the remote learning option for the return to the academic year, about 1,450 overall, with half of those in elementary grades and the other half secondary students.
The district is running two “remote learning experience” schools, with Director of Elementary Education Kerry Jones serving as the principal of the elementary school, where there are roughly 725 students. Tim Kessler is the principal of the secondary school, which also has about 725 kids.
Families changed their minds at the last minute, and teachers and class lists had to be shuffled around, and some new teachers hired, through the end of last week, Moore said.
To start the school year, all lunches will be “grab and go,” Moore said, with no hot lunch service in the cafeterias.
There are no lunch periods at the high schools, where the in-person day ends at 11:25 a.m. The middle school in-person day ends at 12:50, and students can pick up their lunches as they depart, but there is also a snack time available earlier in the day.
Elementary schools dismiss from in-person classes at 2 p.m., and have lunch during the school days.
Through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program, grab and go lunches, as well as breakfasts, are free of charge to all students. Families who have chosen remote learning area also eligible for the grab and go meals, and have been notified of pick-up sites, Moore said.
There is signage on the door of all schools reminding students about wearing masks and keeping their distance, and hand sanitizer stations dotting the hallways, but any apprehension remained well hidden, and back-to-school on Tuesday looked as “normal” as it could be.
Moore and department directors will give a report to the Board of Education, which will meet in person for the first time since March, on Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. Board members will meet in Room 400 of Town Hall, but public comment will still need to be made via phone. The agenda, with details regarding how to call in, can be found here.
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