LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — Fayette County Public Schools opened classrooms to thousands more students Monday morning after sixth-, ninth- and 12th-graders were invited back to in-person learning for the first time in nearly a year.
Southern Middle School Principal Kevin Payne said he and his staff were excited to welcome about 85% of the school's sixth-graders back to the building Monday morning.
"We can't wait for our seventh and eighth graders to be here as well. But to get those kids in the building for the first time, you know, a lot of them have never been at Southern before," he said. "So just making sure they were comfortable, making sure they knew where to go, and having a lot of adults to greet them and welcome them. That was our main plan is just to make them feel comfortable and excited about being at school today."
Sixth-grader Bella Grace Coulter said she was "ecstatic" when she found out her grade would have the option to return to in-person learning. But like any first day, there were some nerves -- Hers, COVID related.
" I think that wearing the mask will be a little bit of a struggle you know...be hard to breathe in," she said.
Payne said they would give students mask breaks throughout the day but would keep students walking on one side of the hallways, in alphabetical order for contact-tracing reasons, require thermal thermometer readings upon entry to the building, pre-packaged breakfasts and lunches, perform extra cleaning, and to avoid gatherings refrain from using lockers, instead require students to carry their supplies from classroom to classroom.
"If I'm a parent, I want my kid to be safe when I send them to school so that's our goal here at Southern," Payne said.
Bella Grace's mother Kelli Coulter said she was most excited for her daughter to see her teachers but also "getting back in meeting friends, and being around people."
"It's awesome because I've had to do the past few months of online learning and it's been a really, really hard struggle for me especially since I love school. And I'm so happy to be back here because I've really wanted that experience since the beginning," said Bella Grace.
Payne said having sixth grade back first was a bonus.
"They're new to the building. They don't know where to go, they don't know the shape of our building they don't know where exploratory classes are, where all their core classes are," he said. "So, being able to have them for a week is good to walk them through the processes of our everyday, middle school life. And then we'll get seventh and eighth grade back next week. They've been here done that so they're kind of, you know, the leaders."
Payne said Southern Middle is expecting 85% of seventh- and eighth-graders to return on March 15. He also said that a majority of his teaching staff are back in the building.
"[Our] teachers are working very hard, whether at home or in-person," he said. "And they've got your kid's best interest at heart and they want to make them feel welcome and make them feel safe, and we're excited to get going. This is a year of firsts. But educators are relentless and resilient, you know, educators are resilient and I really think that they're up to the task. So, as we move forward, you know, we'll do our best, and we'll keep our kids safe and we'll make sure that they're learning at a high level."
That high level is something parents have told LEX 18 they are concerned about as some feel their children are falling behind. Payne said K-Prep testing in the spring will provide a data point.
"We'll get those kids prepared and you know they'll do their very best, but our big thing is social and emotional. We want our kids to, you know, get that aspect of it, and we want to close those learning gaps if they have them," he explained. "I think it's important that we see where the kids are, though. We want to know where those gaps are academically and socially so we can meet those needs. So if, you know, that's a test and you know we will use that data to drive our instruction. So, we don't want to anxiety or worrying about the test we just want a, you know, a data point where we can, you know, meet these kids as they move on to the next grade level."