ME High School Students at School in Masks

Students, faculty, and administrators at Manchester Essex are feeling heartened after returning for their first week of in-person school.

“I think the energy in the building is great. The faculty are just really excited to see kids in the building and to feel some normalcy,” high school principal Patricia Puglisi said. “I think, each day, kids are feeling more and more comfortable in the building and are getting used to the routines that we need to have in place.”

High school dean of students Craig Macarelli said the district’s slow return to school was softened by the intervening hybrid model.

“Especially from the staff’s perspective, it seemed to help with the nerves and anxiety to kind of have that slower approach,” he said.

Freshman Charlie Lations participated in the hybrid model, which began in January.

In the hybrid model, he said, students were sparser. Now, with more students in the building, classrooms are filled, although students are still distanced in accordance with the three feet recommended by the CDC.

Despite the closer proximity to other students, Lations said he feels safe in the building.

Macarelli said the new safety protocols remind him of school in his childhood: desks in single rows, students facing the same direction, minimal group work, single file lines, and teachers orating from the front of the classroom.

“We’ve worked in this last decade-plus of education to get more involved with group work and interactive learning,” he said. New protocols do not allow for the same collaboration practices.

However, remote school presented its own set of challenges; student engagement was low online, Macarelli said.

“Plenty of kids were doing great, but a lot of kids [struggled] to stay engaged and be motivated,” he said.

In person, engagement is higher.

“It just feels about as close to normal as I think we’ve been so far,” Macarelli said.

Senior Abby Conway did not participate in the hybrid model and returned to school on April 12.

She said none of her classes use Zoom throughout the day because all of her classmates are in school, so it feels similar to typical school before the pandemic.

Conway said she has enjoyed the ability to talk to her teachers face-to-face and values the connections she can make with them as she learns in person.

“I think I might be more focused in school,” she said. “It’s nice having a routine again… [and] a structured day.”

Foreign language teacher Erin Fortunato said she enjoyed observing interactions between students during the first week of the return to school.

“What I missed most during the remote experience is the little moments with students— the small chat before, during and after class, the talking to random students that I don't teach in the hallways, the socialization piece that makes a school a community,” she said.

However, teaching and technology are more complicated when her classes are a mix of remote and in-person students, Fortunato said.

“I want the few kids at home to still feel like they are part of the class, so I want them to be able to see and hear their peers, and us them, and they need to be able to participate without my head being stuck in my laptop for the large number of students in front of me,” she said.

Because many teachers move from room to room with their computers, five minutes at the beginning of each class are spent checking settings and ensuring that the class can communicate effectively, Fortunato said.

“My laptop needs eight cords attached to it in any given class, and most of the attachments require set-up,” she said.

This complexity was part of the reason fully in-person school had to wait until this month.

Maintaining the district’s educational program was a priority for the year, School Committee chair Sarah Wolf said.

She said staying remote for so long ensured that high schoolers could take their full course load, including leveled classes and electives.

“It was a hard tradeoff to make, but I hope that now that we’re back in school full time everybody can see the benefits of having had all their courses all year long,” Wolf said.

Another challenge: funding for safety measures. As a regional school district, MERSD did not qualify for the same educational funding from the CARES Act as single-town school systems did, she said.

Especially in the middle school, teachers and administration are faced with the challenge of maintaining distancing, Wolf said.

Lunch complicates safety precautions. Students must remain six feet apart because they are removing their masks to eat, she said.

Puglisi said students have appropriately followed protocols “of where to walk and logging into desks with the QR codes and wiping down tables and desks at the end of each block.”

“In the cafeteria,” she said, “kids have done a really good job at keeping their distance and following the cleaning protocols.”

“It’s good that we worried… because we were prepared, but we probably didn’t need to be as worried as we were,” Puglisi said.

Wolf said despite the safety and budget hurdles, the transition has been met with a positive response from the community.

She said the staff, students, and parents became more comfortable with the return as they continued to receive more information about the transmission of the virus, the CDC revised their distancing guidelines, and vaccine rollout began.

Nearly all elementary students and most middle and high school students have returned to school, Wolf said.

Macarelli said students and staff seem happier, less stressed, and more comfortable in the fully in-person model than in the hybrid model, especially with many teachers and some students being vaccinated.

“I think people are finding the joys of normalcy in having kids in the building are outweighing the nerves and anxieties more than were anticipated,” he said.

Olivia Turner is a student at Manchester Essex Regional High School, Co-editor of the school newspaper, The Independent, and a student writer for The Cricket.