Monday morning at Ritta Elementary School almost felt like a normal first day of school: Teachers lined the sidewalk, welcoming students back. Students carried backpacks full of school supplies. 

Some changes stood out, though. Students dropped off in the carpool line had their temperatures taken and teachers reminded students to pull their masks up before entering the building. Students entering through the front door of the school had a walk-through sensor that took their temperature. 

If Ritta Elementary Principal Shawnda Ernst spotted a mask that looked too big or a student without a mask, she directed them to the front office, where extras were on hand. Even with the changes, she was excited to have them back in the building. 

“Our kids haven’t been with us for five months, so we’ve got to love on them and let them know this is a safe place,” Ernst said. “We’re doing everything we can to keep them safe.”

In the classrooms, desks have been spread out. Students would receive lanyards so they could attached their masks during lunch. 

“It is going to be a different thing for students to have to get used to … we’ve done a lot of communicating with our families to make sure that they understand that those are the protocols that are in place,” Ernst said. “The teachers are prepared to just teach the kids that that’s how life is right now.”

First day in class since March

Monday was the first day of class for Knox County students since March 12, when Knox County closed for an extended spring break that turned into a long-term closure. The first case of COVID-19 was reported in Knox County that same day. 

KCS extended the closure multiple times, eventually closing through the end of the school year, following the recommendations of Gov. Bill Lee. Knox County did not offer at-home or virtual learning after closing on March 13. There were some work packets available, but they were not required and did not affect the students’ overall grade.

Introduction of virtual learning

This is the first semester that Knox County Schools will be a 1:1 technology district, meaning each student has a laptop they can use in the classroom or for virtual learning. Around 30% of Knox County students will participate in fully virtual learning. First grade teacher Cameron Malone will teach 22 students virtually this year. 

“It’s a challenge, it is,” Malone said. “We’re just starting over. Everything is from scratch. Everything that we do has been planned out in a lot more detailed way.”

More: See how many virtual learners your Knox County school will have, by the numbers

Malone said he anticipates “a lot of trial and error in the beginning, because we don’t know what works yet.” His biggest hurdle is making sure his first graders get to know him, and creating a welcoming virtual environment. 

“I’m used to having kids in my room and they can kind of feel what the environment is like,” Malone said. “It’s going to have to be figuring out how to do that virtually, creating that loving environment, that learning safe place for them.”

‘As prepared as we can be’

Superintendent Bob Thomas said teachers, administrators and custodial staff have spent the last few months preparing for the first day. When Knox County pushed the start date back by two weeks, that gave staff additional time to clean and prepare school buildings, he said. It also gave teachers more time to prepare for virtual teaching. 

“We feel like we’re as prepared as we can be,” Thomas said. “Of course, it’s new and as we do it more, we’ll get better at it.”

Knox County Schools will follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Knox County Health Department guidelines, he said, from physical distancing to hand sanitizing and masks. 

“We’re trying to make sure we can make the process as smooth as possible, knowing it’s going to be a little bit disruptive,” Thomas said. “I think our students are excited to be back in school. I know our teachers and principals are excited to see our students.”

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