West Bloomfield students return to in-person classes

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

West Bloomfield — The first day of school felt like Christmas morning at the Randall home.

Kim Randall watched as her two daughters, Stella, a fifth-grader, and Brooklyn, a seventh-grader, got up early and excitedly packed their backpacks, eager to begin their first day of face-to-face instruction back in the West Bloomfield School District.

Stella Randall, of West Bloomfield, with her mother Kim Randall, talks about her first day back to school at Scotch Elementary in West Bloomfield, Thursday, August 27, 2020.

"They are so excited. We are so happy to be here. Most districts were not able to figure this out. So we feel super lucky our district started super early and was able to pull this off," Randall said outside Scotch Elementary School, where Stella was waiting to get into school.

Stella, 10, wearing a light pink face mask and a blue summer dress, said she laid out her clothes the night before, including extra masks, and made sure she her bookbag was right by the door.

"I am really excited. I love learning and I love school," Stella said.

Stella said she knew the new rules of wearing a mask all day and staying 6 feet from her friends and classmates.

Fifth-grade teacher Kelli Mason talks to her students on the first day of classes at Scotch Elementary School in West Bloomfield, Thursday, August 27, 2020.

"I don't care about being 6 feet (apart) or having to wear a mask. I just want to go back to school," Stella said. "I am excited to learn and see my friends again even if I have to stay apart from everyone."

On Thursday morning across the Oakland County district, thousands of young students met new teachers, found new classrooms and learned  the new COVID-19 rules after officials spent weeks preparing for their return.

West Bloomfield is among the first districts in Metro Detroit to call some of its students back for face-to-face instruction.

The district has 5,700 students. About 2,400 have enrolled for in-person learning. The rest are learning at home on the district's virtual program.

On the first day, some new "firsts" emerged: wearing a mask, social distancing from classmates and small class sizes. But other traditions that typically mark the first day of school for youngsters in Michigan were also there: photos, tearful hugs goodbye, and seeing friends again.

The district has limited its return of students to those in grades K-8, with high school students learning remotely.

K-12 students with individualized education plans are allowed to return for face-to-face instruction. Students in self-contained special education classrooms and those in the district's transition center adult program can attend four days a week.

At its elementary buildings, youngsters are broken into two groups, each attending a half day of school, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, four days a week.

This allows for class sizes of 15 students with desks 6 feet apart. Social distance rules such as mask wearing, hand washing and one-way routes will be in place across schools.

Fifth-graders Sophia Noble, 10, left, and Natasha Kammerer, 10, keep their social distance as they talk before the first day of classes at Scotch Elementary School in West Bloomfield, Thursday, August 27, 2020, West Bloomfield, MI.

Classrooms are cleaned between the morning and afternoon sessions. Elementary buildings are closed on Wednesdays, with children learning remotely.

Students at Scotch arrived by bus and car starting around 9 a.m. Once on their feet, students followed a yellow painted line to an area outside school doors, where officials painted dots of green and bright orange on the pavement.

Students were asked to line up on the dots, which were 6 feet apart, near their teacher, who was waiting outside for them.

"Students will find their spot and grab a dot," said James Scrivo, principal of  Scotch Elementary, as students trickled into the school's staging area.

About 65% to 70% of students at Scotch are returning in person with the rest learning at home virtually. Parents have been asked to perform temperature checks at home and to review health questions before sending their child to school.

Fifth-grade teacher Kelli Mason of Scotch Elementary school prepares to send her five-year-old son Trent Mason off to school at Gretchko Elementary school during the first day of classes at Scotch Elementary School in West Bloomfield, Thursday, August 27, 2020, West Bloomfield.

The morning was filled with first-day photos taken by Scotch fifth-grade teacher Kelli Mason, who had to send off her own son, Trent, a kindergartner, who was boarding a bus for his first day of school at Gretchko Elementary School.

Trent, wearing a backpack that looked like the night sky filled with stars, said he was excited and ready to go. A green-apple tag dangled from this neck with his name, teacher's name and his mom's phone number. He wore a tiny green camouflage mask.

Holding hands, Mason walked Trent to the school bus and the pair stood together for a few moments hugging each other before Trent boarded.

"I am happy he is going to see some kids in person," Mason said. "Even with the social distancing, lots of hand-washing, wearing our masks, I still think it is a great experience for them."

School officials say the first day would be spent going over new rules like how to enter and exit classrooms without clogging up areas.

“If I see a kid with no mask on, I will try to handle it on a case-by-case basis. I will ask the students if they are not wanting to wear (one). 'Do you need a mask? Is there a reason you are not wearing it?' There is going to be a whole anxiety piece to this. You want to handle it gently,” Scrivo said.

Sue Rambo, a medical and general paraprofessional at Scotch, painted the dots on the school pavement and sent parents memos to keep them updated about school procedures and rules.

On Thursday, wearing a polka-dot colored mask that matched the pavement, Rambo helped guide students to their proper places.

"I will work with the children," she said. "If anyone is suspected of having COVID, I will be with them and taking care of them until their parents come pick them up." 

Inside Scotch, teachers began the morning with class sizes that range from 12 to 15 students.

Mason, who teaches fifth grade, welcomed her students and showed them a hand-washing video. She then started a quiz to help students get to know their teacher and another quiz to get to know each other.

Students walk in single file as they enter Scotch Elementary School in West Bloomfield on the first day of classes, Thursday, August 27, 2020.

Teacher Loren Fantich stood in line with her students Thursday morning and led them inside for class. Wearing a mask, Fantich said teaching remains extremely rewarding even under the new circumstances.

"Having the staff, climate and leadership makes it even more rewarding in a situation and circumstance like we have going on in the world," Fantich said. "I definitely feel safe and comfortable and feel like I am doing the job I love the most."

Superintendent Gerald Hill spent Thursday visiting all seven school buildings in the district.  Hill said the morning got off to a great start.

Dr. Gerald Hill, West Bloomfield School District Superintendent, talks about the first day of school in the district, Thursday, August 27, 2020.

Then an air conditioning unit malfunctioned and smoked up an entire classroom at Sheiko Elementary. The fire department arrived and students were evacuated into the school yard, experiencing their first fire drill of the year. Students were able to return inside shortly after, Hill said.

"I'm glad it was a minor thing," Hill said. "Kids are all excited. They are in their first-day clothes. Face masks are interesting, it's a different dynamic. Kids are resilient. They are adaptable."

"It's gratifying to have the kids back in school," Hill said.

At Gretchko Elementary, principal Sally Drummond said she decided to let students and parents practice their return to school on Wednesday by giving them a few minutes to walk into the building, meet their teacher and see their desk.

Students wore name tags and masks. Parents had to follow new drop-off and pick-up instructions using color-coded cards with their child's last name. School staff used megaphones to direct drivers.

"We had a meet and greet. The children K-1-2, they are young and especially the kindergartners who have never been the school or seen their teacher before. We wanted them to have eyes on the teacher and know where their classroom is," Drummond said.

Drummond said she plans not to have students in the hallways. Classrooms at Gretchko have exit doors that allow students to enter and leave, reducing the chances of kids grouping together.

The school, which educated about 440 students last year, will serve about 350 in smaller classes sizes twice a day this fall. This week, Drummond already received calls from families who wanted to change from remote learning to in-person.

Drummond said she and her staff have to rethink everything at school, from folders to magnetic letters.

"We use magnetic letters to teach them to read. If I use these with Suzy, I can't use them with anyone else. Am I going to get 25 sets? Maybe let's get paper letters," Drummond said. "It's all those little examples that we have to think forward. For everybody here, it is something new."