School board details transition plan for returning students, staff

Back+to+school.%0AOn+Nov.+16%2C+all+students+that+have+chosen+in-person+classes+will+return+to+school.+Students+will+have+an+orientation+day+of+meetings+and+instructions+before+reestablishing+their+regular+schedules+of+face-to-face+classes.

Maddie Cowfer

Back to school. On Nov. 16, all students that have chosen in-person classes will return to school. Students will have an orientation day of meetings and instructions before reestablishing their regular schedules of face-to-face classes.

On Monday, Oct. 5, the school board authorized a re-entry plan, affirming that in-person classes will begin in early November. 

High school students will return to school on Thursday, Nov. 12 of this year. However, the first two days back are different for each grade. Thursday is an asynchronous day for the freshmen and sophomores. On Friday, both grades will be able to visit the school physically for a full day.

The juniors and seniors will return to school on Thursday for a full day, meaning their asynchronous day takes place on Friday. This staggered schedule is only for the first two days. The first synchronous day acts as an orientation for the students with class meetings and instructions to help them adjust to the new building and circumstances. On Monday, Nov. 16, all grades will return to the school and follow their normal schedule.

“Students can expect a ‘normal’ face-to-face school day with eight class periods, lunch and transitions. COVID scheduling will allow for more time between classes to have staggered dismissals and entries. Students that typically attend GACTC, work experience and community service will still be able to do so. Clubs and other activities will resume. We will still be expected to have social distancing whenever possible and [the] wearing of face coverings,” Assistant Superintendent Brad Hatch said.

Because of COVID-19, the construction of the new building and the various safety precautions the school must follow, returning to school will be a challenge for everyone. Although students and staff have started school online, having in-person classes for the first time in November will feel like a new experience for many. 

“Having not been in a traditional school setting since March, it will be an adjustment for students and staff. Returning to a whole new environment with the opening of the new B building and renovated A building will only add to the excitement and challenge. COVID precautions will also impact schedules, movement throughout the day, and everyone’s normal routine.  Teachers, administration and staff have been working hard to ease the transition. It will feel like the first day of school I am sure. However, I know that students and staff are anxious to get back to face-to-face instruction and activities,” Hatch said.

The COVID precautions include the new rules concerning social distancing and masks. Students are required to follow these guidelines for the safety of themselves and others, and there is an established protocol for safety compliance.

“Discipline is the last option for COVID non-compliance. We are hoping that everyone accepts individual responsibility when it comes to social distancing and masking. It is not an option, but a behavioral expectation that helps keep everyone safe and allows us to have full face-to-face instruction and resuming of normal activities. Failure to comply will be treated as insubordination after all options have been exhausted. We understand that masking is a challenge and will make every effort to provide frequent masking breaks which are authorized by the Department of Health,” Hatch said.

The social distancing and masking guidelines are in effect with lunch as well. Although the school will still provide lunch for students and staff, the arrangements are different from what most are used to. 

“Students will have a scheduled lunch as they normally do. …Many lunch options will be pre-bagged to limit lines. We have also added eating locations that will include both cafeterias, [the] field house lobby and one of the gymnasiums to allow students to spread out and socially distance. We have also modified the schedules and added additional lunch times to try to limit the number of students eating at any given time,” Hatch said. 

Despite all the changes with lunches, Hatch and the school board have confirmed that breakfast and lunches are free to all students through the end of December. This can be extended through the Federal free lunch program. Hatch hopes that all students will take advantage of this new option when returning to the school. 

If we all do what we need to do and take individual accountability for one another’s safety, we can make this time the start of something special for our community,”

— Assistant Superintendent Brad Hatch

Just as students and teachers are required to follow these safety protocols, the staff must do the same, adhering to the new cleaning measures. Maintaining a sanitized school environment is a critical priority this school year, as the school board has enacted proper cleaning procedures with the custodial staff.

“We have daily disinfecting and cleaning protocols on top of our normally scheduled cleaning routines. We have purchased misting backpacks and other recommended sanitizing materials and updated our protocols for rooms and areas that have potential concerns.  This is a priority of our maintenance department and the District as a whole,” Hatch said.

With this recent announcement of the school’s return, many teachers and staff have expressed their excitement for normalcy. After spending months without face to face interaction with students, many are ready for the new opportunities ahead.  

English and public speaking teacher Heather Tippett-Wertz is one that relies on in-person interaction, something she looks forward to once students and staff return to the building in November. 

“First of all, there is not one thing I will miss about online teaching except maybe the fact that I can do it barefoot [laughs]. I don’t prefer it over face-to-face teaching at all. What I am most looking forward to is being able to express myself in a way that I feel comfortable and confident. I feel limited when I’m teaching online, but when I’m in the classroom with my students right in front of me, I feel more confident in my content. I’m a really expressive person, and I don’t feel that I can demonstrate that online. In conjunction with that, I am also looking forward to interacting with and building relationships with my students. Again, I feel like there are limitations to that while teaching virtually. I can’t see everyone’s faces, so I don’t feel like I’ve made the connections that I can make in person,” Tippett-Wertz said.  

However, there are still students who will not transition into the school as many are staying online to continue learning virtually. 

“Students that opt to remain in virtual will be live streaming their scheduled classes throughout the school day and interacting with their classes virtually live. This will look different than [the] current synchronous and asynchronous virtual schedule. Students in virtual will be participating in their scheduled classes through real time technology,” Hatch said.

Any cyber academy student also has the option of continuing with cyber or returning to the school for in-person classes.

While Hatch acknowledges the challenges students and teachers will encounter, he realizes there are positives within this time.

“My biggest hope is that we are able to open our new high school with full opportunity for students. We have added new and exciting class options for students, increased availability to schedule more electives and the ability to take advantage of a state of the art education facility that will help prepare [students] for the future that [they] want. We are truly starting a new age for Altoona Area High School education. I hope that every student takes full advantage of the opportunities that will be provided to each and every one of [them]. Although it is a challenging time, it is an equally exciting time. If we all do what we need to do and take individual accountability for one another’s safety, we can make this time the start of something special for our community,” Hatch said.

On Oct. 6, Assistant Principal Jason McGinnis sent an email to all students, confirming that Homecoming–which was originally cancelled–will be held sometime in the spring. 

With the news of school returning and dances being rescheduled, the school has created a motto for students and staff to adopt during these confusing times.

“Our motto for this school year is ‘WE GOT THIS.’ I know that our students and staff will embrace this return to normalcy and take every advantage of the opportunity,” Hatch said.