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First-to-Return Staff, Students Lead the Way

The concept of wearing a mask to teach students who read lips would normally stand in the way of Lisa McCann’s role as a paraprofessional at Stetson Elementary. Now she never leaves home without one. “These masks help me communicate with students,” McCann explained. Her clear face covering allows her mouth to remain visible. “With these masks, [students] are able to see my facial expressions that show how I feel.”

Chris Flatley, affective needs teacher at Stetson Elementary, instructs in-person learners Aug. 27.

For the first time since March, students are beginning to learn inside District 49 schools. Classroom boundaries are stretched with desks spaced several feet apart, hand sanitizers are in abundance, and hallways have markers to promote social distancing. Even with the notable differences, staff and students are proving they are ready to return to school.

Tracking COVID infection rates, while listening to staff and families, District 49 started the 2020-21 school year with remote learning for most students. In a shift from the complete pause of in-person learning last spring, students with special needs or individualized education plans and English language learners had the option of learning in-person to start the year.

Chris Flatley, special education and affective needs teacher at Stetson Elementary, and her students are among the first to return to a “new normal” in D49. “E-learning is hard for my students,” shared Flatley. “So much of how they learn is based on reinforcement and modeling … you can only be so personal with a computer.” Many students in Flatley’s class are academically on track, but need support regulating behavior and managing social-emotional needs. Since Aug. 18, she has instructed learners in her classroom four mornings a week.

In-person learning for students with social communications needs has provided relief for parents like Colleen Christiansen, whose daughter Kaitlyn is a second-grader at Stetson. “I have a huge weight lifted off my shoulders as I know Kaitlyn is getting the instruction and support she needs in person,” she commented. “Kaitlyn is able to socialize in a small setting with restrictions in place, as well as work in small groups.” Fellow Stetson mom Meredith Zamarripa agrees, “To get my son, Tristin, interacting with his peers and teachers is so good for him in so many ways.” 

Students on campus work on their general education assignments with extra help from teachers, and special classes like P.E., art, music and technology are also part of the daily schedule.

So are masks, which presented a change and a potential challenge for learners of all ages and abilities. “Kids are surprising us and rising to the occasion,” said Flatley. “A lot of these kids have sensory issues, and some are only first-graders, but they are keeping masks on." 

Students like those at Stetson will lead the way with learning in a new normal when D49 starts to welcome back additional students with a staggered approach beginning Sept. 8. “Our kids will have a jump start and will be role models when the general education students come back,” said Flatley. “It’s a bit of a role reversal and opportunity for these kids … and just the idea of that gives me chills.”

Louise Sanchez, paraprofessional, assists Jeffrey Thompson, fourth-grader at Stetson Elementary, with assignments Aug. 27. Cael Hefty, fourth-grader, takes a comfortable seat to start his lessons for the day at SES Aug. 27. Alex Margelewski, third-grader, takes aim on the ball during a golf lesson in P.E. class Aug. 27 at Stetson Elementary.

Amy Matisek
amatisek@d49.org