NORTON — Parents and students returning for a new year at Norton Elementary and Middle School and John I. Burton High School saw a new kind of welcoming: temperature screenings.
Norton City Schools broke new ground in Southwest Virginia Wednesday as administrators, teachers, staff and students all found themselves trying to follow procedures for classes in the COVID-19 pandemic. Nurses and staff welcomed kindergarteners and older kids at Norton Elementary with mask-concealed smiles, upbeat words and a thermometer aimed at their foreheads.
Most parents walking their kids to the school entrance were wearing masks, but all students were wearing them as they filed into the elementary school, picked up breakfast and headed to their classrooms to eat at desks spaced several feet apart.
Principal Scott Addison went to his office to read the morning’s announcements.
“We do want to welcome you back to a new school year, and we thank you for following safety protocols,” Addison’s voice carried across the intercom system.
The elementary school’s floors resembled a science fiction movie set, with colored lines for walking lanes and dots spaced six-feet apart serving as waiting spaces for restrooms.
“It’s actually easier for the younger students to follow the directions because they’re used to walking in line,” Addison said during his morning walk-through.
Addison said several things have changed in the new school year. Most of the staff offices have been relocated to make space for a dual-flow nursing area, where normal student upsets and injuries can be separated from possible COVID-19-symptomatic students and staff. Instead of going to different classrooms during the day, students stay in the same room while their teachers come to them with their own laptops loaded with lesson plans and activities for the day.
Addison said another concession has been made to teachers and staff this year as a matter of work practicality: They can wear medical scrubs.
“That way they can toss their clothes in the wash right after work,” Addison said.
Of about 450 students at the elementary and middle school, Addison said, about 300 have indicated they will attend the division’s four-day on-site school week, while about 155 will take their classes remotely at home via internet.
At Burton, Principal Brad Hart and his staff also saw lower on-site attendance, as about 230 of the approximately 350 students there opted for in-person classes.
While the school’s kitchen remains in operation for breakfast and lunch, students are eating in their classrooms.
The cafeteria is not idle, though, as it has become a socially distanced classroom.
Math teacher Robert Fultz’s students christened the new basement classroom like many high school math students would any classroom.
The main hallways in Burton included a physical lane separation of posts and caution tape, and one science classroom included what Superintendent Gina Wohlford hopes to see more of in the coming days: a foot-operated sanitizer dispenser made from a few dollars’ worth of PVC plumbing pipe.
“I hope the science class can make that a project,” Wohlford said as she squirted a bit of sanitizer in her hands.
Burton visitors can expect a temperature screening and a few questions about any symptoms, contact with COVID-19-positive people and international travel habits.
Wohlford said opening day at both city schools went off with few issues. Afternoon bus schedules will need some adjusting, she said, and temperature screenings at the high school will be moved to the parking lot instead of inside the student entrance.
Wednesday’s experience with high schoolers moving to and from classes means that all Burton students will be required to wear masks in the halls, Wohlford added.
“No one had to be quarantined or sent home,” she said of the day at both schools. “I’m pleased with the students, especially how they followed the procedures today.”
Wohlford said Norton’s Aug. 5 start made the district the center of attention of many Virginia school systems on Wednesday.
“We had a lot of calls to reach out and wish us luck, and that made me feel a lot better during the day,” Wohlford said.