In-person, virtual classes begin for area schools

BERRIEN COUNTY — The rain did not damper the spirits of educators welcoming students back to their first official day of in-person instruction since March.

Tuesday marked the first day of class for all students across Brandywine Community Schools, Buchanan Community Schools and Niles Community Schools since March 13. Niles and Brandywine schools had utilized “soft-start” dates Wednesday and Thursday before the Labor Day weekend, having students alternate between in-person on one day and virtual the next, to test protocols and ensure students and parents understood each method for the year. Buchanan Community Schools opted to return all students enrolled in in-person classes on Tuesday.

School registration for in-person classes are down across all three districts. Niles Community Schools and Brandywine Community Schools both saw about a 20 percent decrease in in-person registration of students.

At Brandywine Community School’s Merritt Elementary, teachers welcomed students back to class at both the school bus drop-off and the parent drop-off site in front of the school.

Students ran happily inside as they dodged rain drops, wearing their masks and carrying fresh backpacks for the fall.

As the day began, Principal Matthew Severin welcomed students back over the loudspeaker. He led them in the “Pledge of Allegiance,” and reminded students that Brandywine Bobcats are always caring, special and responsible.

Students recognized Severin even with his face mask on, which was matched to his bow tie with a Minecraft pattern.

New procedures, like the drop-offs by a certain time and not having students being walked to classrooms by parents, are becoming more streamlined already, according to Severin.

“I think as we get better at our new procedures, and our families learn what we have changed, things are only going to be moving faster and getting better,” he said.

Merritt Elementary has students from kindergarten through second grade. For lunches, the administration has decided each class will have its own lunchtime in the cafeteria to aid in cohorting students to minimize COVID-19 exposure and spread in the school.

“Instead of 100 first graders in the cafeteria, there will be about 17 to 18 at a time,” Severin said. “We actually were able to work it out. We have two rooms we can use, and we had rest time in between lunches.”

The lunches run closer together, but will allow for the necessary cleaning and cohorting the district wants to maintain.

“We also have three fewer classes [in person, needing lunches] due to students going virtual,” Severin said.

The best part of students returning for Severin was listening to them play on the playground last Thursday.

“It was so fun to hear the joy on the playground,” he said. “To hear the kids screaming and chasing each other, it was a fun sound. It was good to hear that again.”

In Buchanan, Bucks students returned to classes for the first time Tuesday.

“[Tuesday] went really well,” said Buchanan Community Schools Superintendent Patricia Robinson. “I was able to visit all four buildings, and from the start of dropping kids off at the high school, it was very orderly and organized.”

Robinson said students in middle and high school adapted and complied to wearing masks, which is mandatory. Some of the teachers had to adjust their class plans for the first day due to the rain early in the day, switching from a planned outdoor class time to a lecture format with as much spacing as possible indoors between students.

“Some of the teachers had adjusted their scheduled to making sure students have what they need,” Robinson said. “Some are giving up some of their planning time to make sure we have additional electives at the high school level. They have made some sacrifices and are working to be extremely flexible.”

She said classes like physical education, band and some lunches will be outdoors as the weather permits.

“When the weather is better, sunny and dry, [some classes] will be outside,” Robinson said.

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