It was a first day of school like no other.
After more than five months of sitting empty, the classrooms of Brook Park Elementary School and S.E. Gross Middle School came alive on Aug. 26 with the teachers and students once again interacting with each other.
There were some noticeable differences. Going to school in the midst of the continuing coronavirus pandemic requires major adjustments. Everyone — teachers and students alike — wore masks. And, students attending the hybrid program in Brookfield-LaGrange Park School District 95 are only inside the school building for 2.5 hours a day.
But those back inside their school buildings for the first time since March 13 seemed happy to be back and enjoyed seeing their friends and teachers again.
“It’s better than doing e-learning, that’s for sure,” said Nick Corradino, a sixth-grader at S.E. Gross Middle School in Brookfield.
Gross School eighth-grader Abbey Syslo was also glad to be back at school, even though she found some of the restrictions a little aggravating.
“It was very different and weird, I guess you could say,” Syslo said after her first day back in class. “It was hard with the mask on and trying not to touch people and staying six feet away.”
Syslo enjoyed seeing friends and classmates, some of whom she hadn’t seen since March.
“Sadly, I couldn’t hug them or anything, but I said hi to them,” Syslo said.
Syslo noticed an emphasis on cleanliness.
“It was very clean,” Syslo said. “You could smell all the hand sanitizer, but I liked it because we just were back. It felt somewhat normal.”
But Syslo, a volleyball player, is disappointed that the volleyball season, like most extracurricular activities, has been cancelled.
Wearing a mask for hours at a time is something everyone is trying to get used to.
“This mask thing is kind of getting on my nerves, but whatever,” said Gross sixth-grader Jimmy Corradino, who is Nick Corradino’s twin brother.
Students attending in person at Brook Park and Gross Middle School have been split up into cohorts of nine to 15 students each. Each cohort stays in the same classroom for the entire time they are at school. At Gross School, teachers who specialize in specific subjects rotate into the room so students can stay put.
In-person instruction in District 95 is concentrating on the core subjects of reading and math, while other subjects will be taught during the remote portion of the school day.
After just two days of school, Nick Corradino said the online portion of the hybrid plan already seemed much better than last spring.
“It’s definitely better. It’s more organized than last year,” Nick Corradino said.
Seventy-one percent of Brook Park students and 78 percent of Gross School students enrolled in the hybrid plan, which combines in-person and remote learning.
“I thought it was important for the boys to get back into the school building, because I could tell that they needed to, basically, get in front of a teacher,” said Tina Corradino, the mother of Jimmy and Nick Corradino. “I could tell that they were getting tired of being at home, and I wanted them to try and feel somewhat normal with everything that’s been going on, because it’s been a difficult summer.”
Heather Wudtke of LaGrange Park said her second-grade daughter, Gracie, couldn’t wait to go back to school.
“She’s so excited, she was like ready two hours before,” Wudtke said.
Wudtke, whose other daughter is a seventh-grader at Gross, said she wasn’t overly concerned about health risks of going to school during a pandemic.
“We’ve got to start somewhere, so I’m OK with it right now,” Wudtke said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Tanya Svoboda said that her first-grade daughter, Noelle, was both nervous and excited about returning to school.
“I wish it was full day, but I’m really proud of the school for doing everything they can to even have it be a part day,” Svoboda said. “I know that that wasn’t easy for them.”
Parents who chose 100-percent remote learning did so for a variety of reasons. Hasime Jashari chose to keep her son, Paolo Carillo, at home and have him attend kindergarten remotely via Zoom.
Jashari said the normal stress of sending a child off to kindergarten was compounded by the pandemic, and she worried that her son wouldn’t be able to keep his mask on for more than two hours.
“Everything got to be overwhelming for myself and my child,” Jashari said.
At Brook Park and S.E. Gross, teachers engaged their students in typical first day of school getting-to-know-you activities. Many teachers used games to share information about themselves and tried to get students to say things about themselves.
It took a lot of work, arranging cohorts, developing lesson plans for both in-person and remote learning, and preparing the schools and the classrooms for social distancing to make the first day of school work.
Most water fountains were turned off, with students only allowed to fill water bottles from them.
Brook Park kindergarten teacher Jaclyn Leffelman’s instructions on how to wash your hands was a normal first day lesson that took on increased importance during the time of COVID-19.
“It was a long road to get here, but we had everybody working in the same direction from administration to teachers to support staff, custodians,” said S.E. Gross Principal Ryan Evans.
All the work seemed worth it once students entered the building.
“We’re excited to have our heartbeat back,” Evans said. “It’s good to have the kids in the school, hear the buzz in the classrooms again.”
Even if kids are not attending in person, Evans said that he is glad that students are interacting with teachers in real time.
“We’re excited whether they’re at home learning or here learning,” Evans said. “We’re excited to have our students back with us at S.E. Gross.”