Its September, and students are settling into a new school year that features a new elementary school building in Manchester, a new playground and some classroom updates in Essex, and a return to in-classroom learning after an extended period of attending class remotely in 2020-21.
Even if there is a whole lot that is new to celebrate for local students and school staff, what’s even more important is a return to something familiar. Students still have to remain masked and classrooms are set up to maintain three-foot social distancing, otherwise these first couple of weeks of classes have been a welcome return to the norm.
“For me, life returning to campus has been wonderful, amazing,” says Pamela Beaudoin, Superintendent for the Manchester Essex Regional School District. “Looking out the window now, there are kids on a break playing frisbee in the field. The pace really does feel like it did pre-COVID.”
“It is so amazing to have students back in person,” says Maggie Tomaiolo, a fifth-grade teacher at Manchester Memorial Elementary School. “You don’t realize how much you appreciate something until it’s taken away. Most importantly, it is great to have kids interacting with each other in a typical way.”
In Manchester, students have spent the last couple of weeks exploring the new Manchester Memorial Elementary School, a building with modern amenities that replaces its predecessor, which was built in 1951. While there is still some exterior work to be done in the final phase of the project – installation of a stormwater runoff system, dedicated parent drop-off/pick-up area, bus drop-off loops and playground areas – students, teachers and staff have been able to embrace some of the more modern conveniences of the new building to date.
“I remember a few years ago, the first few days of school being cut to half days because of an extreme heatwave,” explains Tomaiolo, who also served on the building committee for the new school. “Today, the new air displacement system pulls all of the humidity out of the air making the climate perfect. It also purifies the air, which I know makes many students, parents, and staff relieved.”
“The new building is simply amazing,” says MMES Principal John J Willis. “The staff and I are so thankful to be able to welcome our students and families each day to a wonderful school building each day. I used to always say, ‘If we were a book, don’t judge us by our cover because what is happening inside of that old building is truly amazing.’ Now, all are welcome to judge us by our cover because the beauty of the school building matches the beauty of what is happening inside our classrooms. The teaching and learning spaces are modern, spacious, and bright. The architecture makes learning visible thanks to amazing sightlines and flexible spaces where learning does not have to be confined to a traditional classroom setting or a single desk. There are many breakout spaces in the building that are designed to allow our students to spread out and work collaboratively on projects and problem solving.”
Other improvements include a new media enter, gym and outdoor spaces, as well as key card entry and exit that should help with security and safety.
“It is so much fun to hear the students “ohhhh” and “ahhhh” when they walk around the building,” says Tomaiolo. “They, of course, love the main entry, AKA ‘the hub’ of the school. The lighting is beautiful and the grand staircase makes them feel invited and important.”
“We have become experts at smiling from our eyes since our mouths are covered by masks,” says Willis. “Everywhere I go in the building, I see ‘smiling eyes’ on every single person here. It is actually hard not to smile. I think after where we came from and what we went through to get here, we are all so thankful that the community supported this project.”
Things have gone pretty smoothly so far with the new school, with the only hiccup to this point being management of student pick-up and drop-off, as well as parking. These problems should be alleviated when phase three of construction is complete.
“If parking is the biggest of our worries, we are doing ok,” says Tomaiolo. “There has been so much planning and forethought that I am impressed with how few challenges there have been so far.”
“The new building has been a ton of fun,” says Beaudoin. “People are dying to get in and see it. We’re looking forward to when we can finally finish phase three and all that exterior work, have a ribbon cutting ceremony and have the public come in and enjoy what we built together.”
It’s been a similarly smooth transition back to traditional, in-person learning at Essex Elementary School as well this fall. As in Manchester, students in Essex are required to maintain social distancing of three feet apart (an improvement on the six-feet-apart guidelines from the previous school year) and remain masked while in school. That being said, the resumption of a more traditional school experience has been embraced by students and staff.
“The opening of school went extremely well,” explains Dr. Jennifer Roberts, Principal of Essex Elementary (EES). “The students are clearly excited to be back in the classroom and to resume school in a more traditional way -- aside from masks and three-foot distancing. We have a brand-new playground that opened a few days before school began and that was a big thrill to all of the students -- they cannot wait to go outside and play on it each day. We also have brand new Smart Boards in each of our classrooms, which enhances classroom instruction.”
Another positive sign for the school is an influx of new students in Essex.
“Half of our first-grade students did not go to EES last year, so we have been working hard to acclimate these young students and I am happy to say they are doing really well, are making new friends, and seem to be happy at EES,” says Roberts.
While the start of the school year has been smooth at both elementary schools, getting to the starting line was a bit hectic.
“We were planning for a fairly typical school year this year, but really had to wait until the last minute to know for sure what the guidelines would be for reopening,” says Roberts. “Last year, we moved most of our furniture and some of our materials to storage units in the back of the school. This hot summer, the custodians did an amazing job of hauling most of the furniture and materials back into the building.
The wait for guidelines also put teachers on a short deadline, as they ended up setting up classrooms to account for the three-foot-distancing guidelines in only a couple of days.
“I am so proud of the work our staff did in this regard,” says Roberts. “Their rooms look welcoming and from what I can see seem to be used very efficiently this year even with the three-foot social distance guidelines. They were very creative in their approach to room set up and I would venture a guess that students do not even notice some of the subtle changes.”
Staff faced similar challenges at Manchester Memorial, in addition to the daunting task of moving into a new building. Teachers and administration were balancing working in remote and temporary workspaces, while also preparing classrooms for students and offices for school staff.
“I can best describe it as moving into a new 77,100 square foot house while our old one is being torn down, while planning a year-long party with 300 guests and their families,” Willis says of the experience.
Despite the challenges, teachers and staff recognize how far we have come since last year at this time.
“Everyone is thrilled to not be on ZOOM,” says Roberts. “Teachers and students are so happy to all be together.”
“I think we’re just so much more optimistic this year,” says Beaudoin. “We’re aware, and we know what to watch for, and prepared for what could come. I think we are optimistic that we can maintain this if we do it right.”