On Friday morning, about 100 students flowed out of cars and buses at Frank Porter Graham Elementary School to finish out their first week of in-person instruction in a year.
Teachers greeted car and bus riders with daily temperature checks before directing them to their classrooms.
“The only thing that I miss is hugging them,” Eimy Rivas Plata, an exceptional children’s teacher, said as she greeted students in the car lane.
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education voted in early March to offer in-person instruction to all students beginning March 22.
The last week before spring break, March 22 through 26, was intended to be an "acclimation" period in which parents who chose in-person learning had the option to send their children to school while students and staff adjusted to the new procedures.
The district’s plan divided most students into two cohorts that attend school on either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday.
After returning from spring break on April 5, all elementary school students can attend school four days per week, with Wednesday being a flex day. Most middle and high school students will remain under the cohort system of in-person instruction twice a week.
However, some middle and high school students are also eligible to return four days per week if they have Individualized Education or 504 plans, participate in the Exceptional Children Adapted Curriculum or are English learners in the district's Newcomer Program.
Connor Lopez, a senior at Chapel Hill High School, said he decided to return after remote learning began to feel monotonous, and he wanted to see his teachers and friends.
“I coordinated with my friends to see who was going back versus who was not,” Lopez said.
Lopez said it was surreal returning to a new school building with so few other students. He said one to six other students were in each of his classes on Thursday and Friday.
Upon arrival, he fills out a health screening and has his temperature taken. Floor tape directs the flow of traffic in the halls, and students wear masks unless they are actively eating.
“'Camaraderie' would be the best word for kids passing in the halls,” Lopez said “There's also people who are still getting oriented to the new school (building), so it's like we’re new freshmen again because we have no idea where anything is.”
Lopez said teachers have worked hard to include both remote and in-person students.
“I look at the computer to get information, but then I also find myself looking at the teacher because they're in front of me,” Lopez said “I bet I'm gonna get used to it, but it's almost disorienting.”
Karen Galassi-Ferrer, principal of Frank Porter Graham Elementary, said it has been important to think creatively about safety measures, like holding lunch and breakfast outside or placing colorful tape on the ground for students to follow for social distancing.
“Having kids learn the new way to get to their classrooms from car or bus in the morning and then having them help other students who have not yet been on campus will be essential,” Galassi-Ferrer said.
Preliminary survey results conducted by the district in early March show that about two-thirds of all elementary students, half of middle school students and 40 percent of high schoolers will return to school.
Galassi-Ferrer said Frank Porter Graham had nearly 100 students on campus each day before spring break, and she expects almost 400 students to return.
The results also show Black and Asian students were less likely to choose in-person instruction than white or Latinx students. About 47 percent of Black students and 46 percent of Asian students are returning to in-person instruction, compared to about 57 percent of white and 58 percent of Latinx students.
Fifty-four percent of all respondents said they plan to return to in-person classes, an increase from 47.3 percent when families were surveyed in January.
Rivas Plata, the exceptional children's teacher, said although remote learning challenged many of her students to grow, she is thankful to interact with them in person again.
“It was hard sometimes, but it was also good to have them experience these new environments," Rivas Plata said. "But having them back is also very exciting for all of us."
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