Cars snaked through the Basis Flagstaff parking lot in the snowfall Tuesday morning as parents dropped off the school’s first group of students to return to in-person learning.
Like many other local schools, for nearly a year the public charter has been delivering classes to most of its students online, except those receiving the school’s on-site support services, allowing them to complete their online classes from the school campus.
About 100 kindergarten through second-graders returned for in-person learning Tuesday in the first phase of the school's reopening plan. Third- through fifth-graders will return Thursday and the remaining grades on Monday.
The school day Tuesday began with an extensive, staggered drop-off process that, though clearly marked by the pandemic as students arrived with face masks or shields and had their temperatures checked, still retained some of the elements of a traditional first day of school.
Students were laden with colorful backpacks and school supplies as teachers they had never met in person escorted them into the building, with parents holding their phones out the driver’s window to snag a first-day-of-school picture or occasionally springing from the car to hug their children goodbye.
As several students matter-of-factly reminded their enthused parents and teachers as they walked into the building, though, it wasn’t the first day of school.
“It’s the first day of in-person school,” they said.
Basis Charter Schools, Inc., has allowed families to choose for their students either to continue remote learning or return to campus. Head of School at Basis Flagstaff Lisa Foreman said according to a parent survey, about 62% of students are expected to return to school in person.
With all the preparation put into the return, Foreman said she did not even want to consider a snow day Tuesday. As parents dropped off students, staff shoveled and salted the icy sidewalk leading to the school’s back entrance, where students had their temperatures checked and were directed to their classrooms. By mid-morning, the storm had cleared.
“I think I’m excited about every bit of it,” Foreman said of the return to school. “Just to be able to do what Basis does best and teach. Our teachers are excited to have kids in front of them and see those ‘aha’ moments right in front of you instead of on the screen.”
Jean-Marc Patnoe said he was looking forward to teaching about half of his second-grade engineering students in person Tuesday. Some of the older students in his remaining classes — photography, graphic design and journalism — will be returning later.
“I teach arts primarily, and arts is very visual and very interactive. It’s about expressing our humanity. Having a computer in between that really puts a lot of barriers up. And since everything we’re doing is digital, it’s like one more moment that the students are on computers when maybe they don’t need to,” Patnoe said. “When they come back, I’m excited about being able to do a much different approach with the students who are here in class.”
By the afternoon, second-grade teacher Heather Meyer said the day felt very similar to a traditional first day of school, with the notable face mask exception. Though there were some difficulties with pacing when it came to working with in-person and online students at the same time, Meyer said her young students had a lot of patience and understanding for the new protocols.
“I think kids roll with the punches. They are easily adaptable,” Meyer said in an email.
Patnoe said the school has been working on its plans for in-person learning since July, so he feels confident that COVID-19-related changes are going to go as well as they can.
“Everyone has concerns about in-person learning. Everyone does. But CDC guidelines came out and I like to trust science. If it’s saying that we should do this and there are certain precautions to take, we take the precautions. It’s a bad situation. No one’s going to win in COVID. You’re trying to maximize benefit. What’s the best that we can do, what’s the most good that we can do?” he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its strategy for reopening schools Friday, stating that there is strong evidence K-12 schools can reopen safely if certain COVID-19 mitigation measures are enforced, including the “universal and correct use of masks” and at least 6 feet of physical distancing.
The strategy outlines essential elements of operating K-12 schools, including layered mitigation strategies, COVID-19 testing, equity considerations and the suggestion that teachers and staff be vaccinated as soon as possible.
“K–12 schools should be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures in the community have been employed, and the first to reopen when they can do so safely,” reads one of the plan’s core concepts of learning modes and testing.
According to Coconino County Health and Human Services’ Feb. 12 COVID-19 schools report, Flagstaff Charter Schools and Flagstaff Unified School District fall into the category for moderate community transmission of COVID-19 in two of three of the reopening benchmarks. The Arizona Department of Health Services recommends that all three benchmarks be in the minimal transmission category for two weeks before schools reopen for in-person learning. Virtual learning is currently recommended for all county schools included in the report.
The FUSD board voted last week to begin its phased return to in-person learning in March if it meets the COVID-19 benchmarks set by the district before then. The board plans to discuss these benchmarks at its next meeting Feb. 23.