Walking down a hallway at Arcola Elementary School to recess, a young student waved at Principal Emmanuel Jean-Philippe.
The boy’s smile was hidden behind a white cloth mask dotted with outlines of blue, orange, pink and green dinosaurs, but his joy was obvious as his eyes lit up and the corners creased.
Students at Arcola, in Wheaton, have been back in the classroom for about two weeks, starting the 2021-22 school year about seven weeks before the rest of the district. Before then, it had been more than a year since many students had seen Jean-Philippe — or their teachers and friends — since March 2020.
If not for the mask, it would be difficult to tell the school community was recovering from one of the most tumultuous, difficult years in modern history. Gone are physical distancing requirements, classroom capacity limits, bans on sharing supplies and one-way hallways.
Students are once again allowed to pass markers and crayons between one another. Lockers and cubbies that were off-limits in the spring to avoid crowding are again filled with colorful backpacks, lunchboxes and toys.
“We’re back,” Jean-Philippe said. “We’re really back.”
As the roughly 700 students at Arcola transition back to a more “normal” school year, anxious and excited parents countywide are watching to see what they can expect when their own children return in August.
Arcola is one of two elementary schools in MCPS that uses a nearly year-round school year. The other is Roscoe Nix Elementary School in Silver Spring.
The schools are familiar with being “first.” They were the first to test the extended school year. They were the first to start the last academic year fully virtual.
Now, they’re the first to head back to school full-time.
“We use that as a reminder of the need for excellence,” Jean-Philippe said. “Our motto is ‘Nothing but our best will do,’ and when you think about that, that means the focus and love is on the children. So, you can’t really overthink it because this is what we do.”
Many students and staff members had a taste of in-person school in the spring, though it was part-time and with many more restrictions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
After a year of closed buildings, schools across the district began a phased reopening in March. Nearly two-thirds of the district’s 161,000 students stayed in a virtual-only format for the entire year, and those who returned were usually back every other week, for four days a week. Wednesdays were reserved for virtual instruction for all students.
In March, as students returned to schools, MCPS leaders first said publicly, and clearly, that they plan for all students to return to buildings full-time in the fall.
Part of the return plan is focusing on students’ social and emotional well-being. At Arcola, teachers are focusing on reconnecting and reengaging with students.
The work is incorporated into class lessons and games. Like on a recent day, in a second-grade classroom, where part of the lesson involved writing sentences in response to a prompt, projected onto the white board at the front of the room: “How are you doing today?”
It’s important work on its own because returning to buildings is new and unfamiliar, and taking the time to learn about each student can help them feel more at ease, Jean-Philippe said.
But there’s another layer.
Arcola is in Wheaton, one of the hardest-hit areas in the state by COVID-19.
With a population that is nearly 70% people of color, Wheaton’s ZIP code (20902) was identified early in the pandemic as having among the most cases in the state, a trend that has held true throughout.
Last week, the county Department of Health and Human Services reported that the ZIP code has had a cumulative case rate of about 9,100 cases per 100,000 people. In a community of about 52,000 people, 106 had died from COVID-19.
Both measures are among the highest per capita in the state.
The school community felt the effects of the pandemic deeply, Jean-Philippe said.
Not only did he and his staff spend much of their time helping students with sick or dying family members, they were also tasked with being the “bridge” to community resources for people who never needed them before, for free food, rental assistance, child care.
Arcola is a Title I school, meaning it receives additional federal funding because it has a large concentration of students in poverty — about 75%, according to MCPS data. But Jean-Philippe said it was apparent the need was far greater in the thick of the pandemic.
One teacher, Margaret Norris, received national attention for organizing an effort to buy and distribute groceries to about 150 families in the community each week.
Others made smaller gestures, collecting clothes, tracking down information about funds that could help pay families’ rent, or simply spending extra time with a struggling student.
Sometimes, crises bled into the school day, too.
“Being in the homes of every student in the class with their cameras on … we were exposed to a lot of different things, and our teachers learned a lot and managed a lot that was really traumatic,” Jean-Philippe said. “A family crisis isn’t going to wait until school is over, so families were coming on the screen saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to call 911’ or ‘someone just died.’ So those were things we had to deal with in a way we hadn’t before.”
School district leaders expect to feel the impact of COVID-19 for years as they grapple with addressing missed instructional time and oftentimes deep emotional trauma.
But as the academic year started up, Jean-Philippe was happy to have his students back in the building, where he could again walk down the hall and say “Hello” and wave.
Because, as Jean-Philippe says, “We’re back.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org