After a summer of chaos and uncertainty, many school districts, including Perkiomen Valley, decided to send students back to school amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, which has especially troubled the United States.
The school board ultimately reached a decision to phase students back, grade by grade, in a blended model at each building if the county and district met certain parameters the administration and school board created from state guidelines, such as having the necessary amount of faculty. Staff were able and encouraged to return to the building in the first weeks of school, even though most students were virtual. Currently, both freshmen and some special education students are in the building, along with most of the faculty, navigating the new COVID-19 procedures in the building.
“It’s been a long time before I’ve been in the office and I think navigating around because we have a lot of hallways that are locked down that we can’t get into [and] you need passcodes for places like the main office… that’s been a huge adjustment. [It’s] difficult,” Ms. Zielinkski, a guidance counselor at the high school says.
Along with finding their way around the building, staff have had to adjust to the limitations on social interaction, which is a staple of high school, especially in The Valley.
“I think even with the counseling center, especially in the mornings, teachers used to pop in…sometimes just socially and other times to talk about students and they can’t do that now. You can’t come in here unless you have a work-related reason,” Ms. Zielinski adds.
Even though some students have returned, many counselors, administrators, and teachers continue to interact with their students virtually because upperclassmen have not yet returned and they don’t oversee any freshman.
“It is hard because I love to socialize and work with people. I believe that interacting with others is part of what keeps us happy and healthy. Students need to look out for their peers and let a counselor, administrator, or a trusted adult know when they think someone is struggling or in danger,” Mr. Stipa, the White House principal at the high school notes.
Due to the virtual interactions and the empty classrooms some teachers stay in, many have shifted their teaching strategies to further engage students.
“I created an assignment that I could run in both [of my] classes…What I’m after is building community, in small ways to start. At this point, I will not shift how I teach…it’s just a different vehicle. My personal philosophy is that when we trust our students and when we empower them to take charge of their learning and we offer the necessary guidance, they will astound us. That is what I do. For me, this is just a bump in the road. I’m doing those things, it’s just a different vehicle for me and that means I just have to work harder to figure out how to do that,” Mr. Heidt, English and NovaLab teacher, adds.
Even though teaching might look different, some students are finding virtual learning easier than in-person. Ms. Sterling and Ms. Wright are both paraprofessionals at the high school who have observed this new learning style at home and in the building, respectively.
“A lot of the students I work with really like virtual because we can work one on one in a breakout room and the stigma of having other people see you getting help is relieved. I have students who don’t want to speak or have their camera on but I get into a breakout room and they’re very talkative, they’ll put their camera on, and they are receptive to getting help. It’s been wonderful,” Sterling says.
On the other hand, other students and faculty prefer in-person learning, just like the learning we had before March of 2020.
“Connections are important so that people trust one another enough to ask for help for themselves or others…they [connections] are not easy in the virtual world,” Stipa notes.
No matter their preference, many would venture to say there is no one clear and concise answer and because of that, patience is key to reopening schools.
“Going a little bit slower and being patient with everyone…that’s okay to do and we might not get everything in one day but if everyone feels good at the end of the day, I think that’s a win,” Ms. Wright says.
While faculty, special education students, and freshmen remain at the high school, seniors are not scheduled to return until October 19th, followed by juniors and sophomores later in the year. Most staff (and students) are still acclimating to the unprecedented, socially-distanced environment, but as students return each month, our “normal” might be changing again at PVHS.
Photos: Joseph Tornambe