GREAT FALLS — The first week of school in Great Falls has been anything but normal this year - just ask anyone at East Middle School.
“We started the year unusual, unlike any other year,” said eighth-grade Social Studies teacher Jolena Hinchman.
“It feels normal, but it’s a lot different because we have to gel in and gel out and wash tables after every class,” agreed Nolan Letcherberger, an eighth-grade student . “A lot of different things.”
No amount of preparation over the summer could have fully prepared this school, nor this district for everything that would come their way, but that didn’t stop them from doing all that they could to prepare for the school year.
In a strange twist of fate, students went so long without stepping foot in schools that some of them even started to miss it. That’s a feeling that many of the district’s teachers know all too well, missing their students, but for students to miss their schools isn’t the most common feeling around.
“Maybe for the first couple weeks it was nice,” said Nolan when asked what it was like being home and out of school for the past five months. “But after that it was like, you were kind of anxious to get back and see your friends and stop being at home.”
Kayte Howell is the Instructional Coach at East Middle School. That means she helps all the school’s teachers prepare their curriculums, lesson plans, etc. for upcoming semesters. This year, the preparation was a far cry from what she’s used to, but she says that everybody at the school has stepped up for each other in the face of the most challenging school year any of them have every experienced.
“Teachers who have better tech skills than others have just been out in other teachers’ classrooms helping, teachers have been doing parents phone calls and getting kids ready for the possibility that they could be absent, teaching of the new procedures and where to look for things, but everybody has been willing to help anyone and everyone, so that’s nice,” she explained. “I think you always question if you’re going to be ready, even in a normal year. This year, everyone came in and they really wondered how it was going to be. The district did give us a few extra hours to prepare, which was really nice to do, and I think we were ready for kids. It felt like the regular first day of school, minus the wipe down procedures and the masks, so I think it all went well.”
The sense of community around the school and the district has heightened as well. Hinchman says she’s been impressed by the roles her students have taken both in and out of the classrooms when it comes to following COVID-19 protocols and making sure that everyone does their part to keep themselves and their peers safe and healthy.
The feeling for many people is that, in order for this semester to go, as Howell puts it, as smooth as it can, it’s all for one and one for all.
“I would say that just the mindfulness of my students,” Hinchman said, when asked what notable differences she’s seen from a typical school year thus far. “I’m seeing a growth in their sense of responsibility, and social responsibility, really, because they are taking responsibility for themselves, but then they’re also helping their friends to remember to do our COVID protocols: sanitizing right when you walk into a classroom, make sure you’re sanitizing when you walk out, make sure that you’re wiping the table. They are all following those protocols, and they’re helping their partner, whoever’s standing next to them, to do those protocols as well.”
Everyone expects challenges as this school year rolls along, both those that were anticipated and those that weren’t. Despite that, there was an upbeat feeling about the halls of East Middle School as bells dismissed students, more frequently to allow for more, less crowded passing periods. Students seem to be happy, or at least generally happier about being back in school with their friends. The teachers that we were able to speak with seemed to understand that their roles and responsibilities this school year stretch beyond that of just educating young minds, but also keeping their health and safety in the forefront of their minds.
I stopped by one classroom at the very beginning of my visit to East Middle School for this story. The school’s principal, Brad Barringer, asked one teacher to have her students show us their post-class cleaning procedures. She would spray the tables and chairs with disinfectant, and the students used their rags and washcloths to clean their spaces. The sense of teamwork, of everyone understanding the role that they play in this phenomenon that is going to school during a pandemic, was very apparent.