Superintendent Mark Daniel didn't hesitate Thursday when he saw a boy in red standing in a Kekionga Middle School hallway, appearing less confident than the other students striding to first period.
“You need some help?” Daniel asked, getting a nod in reply.
Other Kekionga students would need assistance – with their lockers, with their laptops, with navigating the halls – throughout the morning as Fort Wayne Community Schools resumed in-person classes for the first time in 153 days.
School isn't quite the same as before, however.
Along with the prevalence of masks and hand sanitizing stations, efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 were evident by the emptier hallways and classrooms. The fully remote-learning option is keeping about one-third of FWCS students home, and middle and high school crowds are further thinned by the blended-learning setup for students wanting in-person instruction. Students alternate days between coming to school and learning from home.
For Kekionga, that meant about 170 of its more than 550 students spent the first day in the school along Engle Road, Principal Mark Bailey told Daniel as they stood near the entrance to greet students.
This helps make social distancing possible, said Daniel, who visited Kekionga classrooms with fewer than 10 students.
Attendance was an issue Daniel was especially interested in, particularly among remote learners who must remember to log into the learning management system at certain times.
“In person's easy,” he said.
Daniel got a glimpse of a fully remote class in Russell Nichols' upstairs classroom. Nichols sat on a stool facing his laptop and a large screen mounted over the chalkboard showing his students, virtually brought together by Zoom.
Daniel waved to the 28 students.
“Welcome back to a new school year,” Daniel said, speaking into Nichols' headset microphone. “Love to see all your faces.”
Training everyone on remote learning is an immediate priority this year because it's difficult to predict when those skills will be needed, for whatever reason, Daniel said.
Daniel's schedule Thursday included visits to three elementary schools and a noon meeting with the Fort Wayne Education Association's leadership to discuss what went well and what didn't.
“We're watching it very closely,” Daniel said.
The first day had hiccups including long waits for the help desk, login struggles among students learning remotely and jammed phone lines, particularly for transportation, spokeswoman Krista Stockman said. Some of the technology troubles stem from students getting used to a new system, she said, and the district is creating a troubleshooting document to help parents address common tech issues.
There were no mask issues, said Stockman, who accompanied Daniel to the schools.
“Everything we saw in schools was positive,” she said.
Sandra Vohs' assessment was similar. The teachers union president said educators had nothing but praise for the students, who were following guidelines and happy to be back.
“We still have some teachers trying to balance teaching both in person and remote at the same time,” Vohs said, “but we are hopeful that this is temporary and that schedules will be updated so that all remote students will have a dedicated remote teacher.”
School board President Julie Hollingsworth visited four schools. She saw floor markings to encourage social distancing and students using hand sanitizer as well as typical first-day sights including anxious parents – particularly of kindergartners – and students who were glad to return as well as some who wished they were home in bed.
“From what I saw, although some things looked different, school also appeared pretty normal, if that makes sense,” Hollingsworth said.
She is thankful for the employees' preparations and is confident staff will be able to resolve any problems or unforeseen issues, she added.
“This school year, everyone – staff and students alike – will be learners,” Hollingsworth said. “We must all have patience and show respect for others. We're all in this together, but the effort, attitude and cooperation that I saw in my visits [Thursday] makes me optimistic we can do this!”