BRIGANTINE — Inside the Brigantine Community School, everything feels familiar. Teachers at the front of classrooms ask a question, and students in desks eagerly raise their hands to answer. Then, a bell rings and the chatter of children fills the halls.
But take a closer look and see masks on every person and the clear plastic partitions that separate desks, which are amply spaced apart. Blue placards hang on doors noting when the last room cleaning took place, and hand-sanitizing stations are placed strategically throughout the building.
This is what full-time learning looks like during COVID-19.
“It was a little bit more normal than even we expected,” Principal Kathy Fox said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week released guidance on how to safely reopen schools during the pandemic. Across the region, parents are pushing for districts to open for more in-person learning. But in Brigantine, students have been in the classrooms five days a week since October. The district is one of 99 public and charter schools out of 811 across the state that is doing so. (Many Catholic and private schools also are operating in person and have been since September).
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Superintendent Glenn Robbins said 85% of the school’s approximately 500 K-8 students have chosen in-person learning. Though the district has had 20 students and staff members test positive for COVID-19 since September, there has not been any spread of the coronavirus inside the school, he said.
Brigantine, which had planned a return to full-time in-person learning in September but reversed course to remote learning due to conflicts with state guidance, was able to bring in its elementary students starting in mid-October. The middle school students returned in November.
Since then, the district has been operating as normally as possible, under the circumstances.
Seventh-grade English teacher Melissa Knoff has moved her entire classroom to a library in the middle school area of the building, giving her the space she needs to spread out her students.
It’s “every ELA teacher’s dream,” she said of her spacious new classroom.
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A projector broadcasts the day’s lesson, as well as her all-virtual students, to the rest of the class. A microphone hangs from her neck, which she uses to project her voice from behind a mask. And the plastic dividers double as bulletin boards to hold student assignments.
Knoff said her students have adapted well.
“Seamless,” she said. “They just get it. We get it. And they just do it. They’re resilient.”
No doubt being a small district with ample extra space has benefitted Brigantine during the pandemic. The district was able to use an entire half of the building, which it was planning to close down this year due to declining enrollment, to spread out students and staff.
To supplement the custodial staff, which spends the entire day sanitizing the building, a third-party cleaning company was brought in. The two school nurses are on call 24/7.
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Like other districts, to attract more substitutes, Brigantine raised its certified substitute pay to $200 a day. Fox estimated the district, with 64 certified teachers, has about 10 to 15 substitutes on any given day.
“It is a constant shuffling,” the principal said, but added that staff members this year are not coming down with other illnesses like strep throat or the flu.
Training teachers in the technology and programs they would need to make the year successful began over the summer, said Bonnie Marino, supervisor of curriculum, and continues throughout the year.
The role of technology coordinator Scott Scott has expanded beyond what he could have imagined.
“It is immediately much more demanding on an hourly basis, with calls from teachers, as well as seeing the students directly now, and getting calls from parents and grandparents,” Scott said. “A lot of the parents know me by name now.”
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Not only does the district provide students computers to take home if they need them, there are also one-to-one computers inside the school for students.
Fox said everyone knew what to expect going into the year. Getting the entire community, from teachers to parents, on board with reopening school was an important step in making it a reality.
“I think there was a 100% common belief that the best thing for most kids was to be back in school full time,” she said. “That their social, emotional, educational health was dependent upon them having the option to come back.”
Contact Claire Lowe: 609-272-7251