This year’s back-to-school season posed a lot of new challenges for educators. Some schools returned to in-person learning, while others have adopted a hybrid or remote learning model. TpT Teacher-Author and Principal John Hughes shared his experience preparing for the first day of school at his rural elementary school in Utah.

Is your district operating on a fully in-person or hybrid model? 

We started school on August 25th. Our district provided families with four options:

  • In-Person: Students are at school, in masks, five days a week.
  • Hybrid: Parents meet with the principal and create a plan that works best for the family in regards to the number of days the student will be at school in-person and the days the student will participate in distance learning.
  • Distance Learning: Students work from home, doing lessons provided by the teacher over a digital platform such as Canvas, Google Classroom, or what we call our Home Learning Hub. Our school is also requiring parents to bring their child to the school to meet one-on-one with the teacher at least bi-monthly. This allows my teachers to ensure progress is being made and to have a connection with their students.
  • Home School: Parents can withdraw their students from the public school system and are responsible for their education.

How did you prepare for this school year?

It’s taken months to prepare for the return of students. Our state school board issued a manual that was over 90 pages long, which we had to read and follow. My teachers have to run a distance learning platform for a few students while also teaching those who come in person each day (the majority of them). It’s been very stressful for them, but being true professionals, they’ve worked very hard to be prepared for all of their students. Teachers also had to learn a digital platform (Canvas or Google Classroom) — and a lot of that learning was on their own time. 

How are your teachers’ classrooms different from last year?

My teachers’ classrooms are very different this year — from desks set up in rows and columns spaced apart, tables with plexiglass and Vinyl PVC plastic dividers, and many items removed from the room (especially the traditional toys/games) to reduce transmission. All teachers had to really rethink what’s essential in the classroom and what’s not.

Centers and group work also look different. Students are kept in smaller groups and are encouraged to physically distance while working together as much as possible.

But what’s not different is the amount of love and support the students are finding in their classrooms.

How are you keeping your school and classrooms as safe as possible?

Thankfully, we’re a smaller, rural school. We require the students to wash their hands multiple times a day with soap and water. We have sanitizer in every room which students use frequently, and teachers clean all the desks, counters, computers, sinks, pencil sharpener, doorknobs, lights — basically anything that students have touched or may touch. Plus, our two custodians are cleaning non-stop all day long. 

We also eat lunch outside every day, weather permitting. When there’s inclement weather, we eat in our gym.

We have traffic flow and physical distancing signage on the floors and walls to remind students, staff, and visitors. All visitors to the building are temperature checked if they need to go into the building further than the office. Physically Distanced dots are painted outside each classroom door where students wait after recess and before school for their teacher to let them into the building.

In addition, teachers have been provided personal PPE to help keep them safe. We’re also piloting wearable sound systems so students can hear their teacher through the mask.

How much time would you say you spent on getting your school ready this year? Was it stressful? How did you feel about making the adjustments?

My teachers truly didn’t have a summer break. They taught summer school during the month of June. We were meeting and planning as a faculty for the month of July. And then, school started at the end of August. Teachers were in training and meetings — learning digital platforms for distance learners, holding back-to-school Conferences with each student and parent in which we assessed all students in math and language arts to help us know where to start with their learning. 

My teachers were certainly stressed. There was so much to do and think about in regards to learning and student safety — such as rethinking how procedures would work (like the need for all students to wash their hands during the same blocks of time). I would guess upwards of 100+ hours for each teacher [was spent getting ready], and that is probably a very low estimate. Thankfully, each teacher was able to find a way to make their classroom function as close to normal as possible.

About John

Role: Principal
School: Cottonwood Elementary School 
Location: Orangeville, UT
Size:  Less than 500 students

I’ve been teaching elementary level students since 2000. Working with kids is one of the most rewarding experiences one can ask for. I spent my first year as a computer teacher with 1200 students! I also have 3 years of experience as a 5th grade teacher, and I taught 6th grade for nine years. In 2015, I was made the full-time administrator of my elementary school and I love it.

Confidently navigate the 2020-21 school year with expert Teacher-Author and educator advice in TpT’s Back to School 2020 Guide: For Teachers Creating Tomorrow.