AKRON, Ohio — Friday March 5 was a new kind of morning for educators in Akron Public Schools. Teachers across the district were setting up their rooms to welcome students back.
Minni Connalley, a veteran kindergarten teacher, said it felt more like the fall than early March.
"Year 30 ended with my children going home," she said about March 2020.
Connalley spent Thursday and Friday before students arrived making her room ready for first-time learners.
"I love kindergarten. They're just sweet." Connalley said about her students. "They're so sweet and loving and they want to learn."
APS is one of the last public districts in Ohio to welcome students and staff back for in-person learning.
For the 360 days, students were out of the classroom, Connalley made remote learning work the best she could. Just like every other teacher in the state.
Nancy Kannell works down the hall from Connalley at Schumacher CLC. Schumacher is one of 28 elementary schools in the district that re-opened on March 8 by welcoming back kindergarten through second-grade students.
"It's like, oh, it's too hard. The kids can't do that. The kids can't do this. And I mean, yes, they can. Yes, they can. They can do these things," the second-grade teacher said about how remote learning went for her students.
Third through fifth-grade students came back to the building on March 15.
Both Kannell and Connalley know the last few weeks of in-person learning are the most important to help students.
"So we have two weeks in the third grading period and then we start the fourth grading period," Kannell said.
"I have 50 days," Connalley said doing the mental calendar math in her head. "My first couple of days will be to make sure we go over the routines and rituals for school, which we would do in the fall. So maybe the first, second, maybe the third day, make sure we all understand how we function in the building, how we go over all the protocol for health, how we get along with each other without all the touchy feelings that kindergarten has. And then I'm going to hit it hard."
The new routines of school for a 5-year-old look similar to what we've been hearing for the last year: keep your distance, hands to yourself, masks on, and sanitize your hands regularly.
Kannell and Connalley have small, single-use packets of Purell hand sanitizer for students on their desks and larger bottles of hand sanitizer around their rooms. The desks in Kannell's second-grade room are spaced out and students in Connalley's room have to skip chairs at their shared learning tables. There are read stop signs on the seats to prevent children from sitting to close to their new classmates.
"I see a few noses out," Kannell said during a lesson on contractions. A gentle reminder to her students to check their masks during the day.
"The group as a whole is a little bit behind. And then I think that the fall or the last spring, they kind of dropped more. So they came in -- it was very -- it was worrisome. Like I came in going, 'oh, my gosh,'" she said. "But honestly, because everybody follows a timeline -- I mean, I think it'll be pretty good because online will just keep rolling. We'll just be able to have a little more flexibility with the materials and what we do with the kids that are in person."
That flexibility was sanctioned by district officials.
"Some of our instructional leaders for APS said, if you're comfortable, skip this lesson in our curriculum -- in the pacing guide, skip this lesson. This is kind of review," Connalley said. "So that will keep us going so we can cover everything we would cover in the school year ... We want every all kindergartners on the same page, all kids on the same page, everyone being educated and involved and seeing the same curriculum."