Sixth Graders Back on Campus, with the Rest Soon to Come

Preparing the Middle School to welcome students back to campus under new circumstances was an adventure in logistics. Yet despite the challenges the pandemic presents, the school has achieved its monumental goal of getting students back on campus. By strictly following county guidelines for schools, Athenian became one of the first schools to gain a waiver for sixth graders to come back to campus on September 21, with grades 7-12 soon to follow. 

“It has been so exciting to see our sixth graders back, engaging with each other, and connecting in-person with their teachers,” says Athenian Head of School Eric Niles. “Tremendous kudos to those teachers for their amazing work in making this happen. As always, they make it all about our kids and their experience here at Athenian.”

From the big picture to the smallest details, Athenian has worked with Forensic Analytical Consulting Services (FACS) since early spring to achieve risk reduction throughout the pandemic. FACS and a medical expert helped Athenian draft the school’s comprehensive Safety Plan, enabled the school to offer COVID-19 testing on campus, and helped teachers and staff to prepare classrooms for optimal spacing of students and teachers, among myriad other steps toward a contactless campus. 

With sixth grade students and teachers having acted as trailblazers for a new educational model in the time of COVID-19, the school is now prepared to welcome all students back in a part-time, low-density fashion. On October 20, the Athenian will start a two-week reintroduction to campus for all other grades on an alternating-week schedule. 

Large and small changes have been made to the campus, including the addition of outdoor learning spaces, hand sanitizing stations outside each classroom, and cleaning supplies inside each room. Our sixth graders are being tested every week for COVID-19 and we will be testing all of our students and teachers regularly when they return.

Teachers separated the groups into pods of 10-13 students while still in distance learning. This gave kids a sense of familiarity with their groups when they came back, and a core group with whom to start their Athenian career. 

“In preparation, we had to think about how it would work, what we were going to be able to do in the classroom,” says Middle School English teacher Justin Guerra. “We learned a lot through that experience.”

The sixth grade faculty worked hard to prepare classrooms, which went from shared spaces among which students would rotate from room to room, to a model where each student is assigned their own desk to use throughout the day, with teachers rotating instead. During breaks between classes, teachers pack up their materials in wagons that have been provided for them by the school, and move to their next classroom. 

“We are walking around the classrooms and things feel very normal, other than kids [previously] being able to collaborate inside,” Justin says.

Keeping students assigned to a single desk while indoors is meant to aid in contact tracing—if there were a COVID-19 case, the school would easily be able to determine where any points of contact might be. Students bring their materials from home, keeping everything organized in one place.

“They look beautiful, like little workspaces,” Justin says of the desks. “It’s really awesome.”

With a small number of students still learning from home, teachers are maintaining distance learning while also teaching in person by setting up “owl cameras” while they teach their in-person classes. 

And while students aren’t as mobile indoors as they have been in the past, new outdoor classrooms are offering them a chance to collaborate with each other and mix groups and spend time six feet apart with masks, or 10 feet apart without masks. 

“We are going outside, we are really utilizing the outside the classrooms,” Justin says.

As is often the case, there is a silver lining to all this. The sixth graders have been able to gain confidence as the only students on campus before the seventh and eighth grades arrive, and they are developing a closeness in their small pods that would not exist if they had not been cohorted in this way. 

“They are able to have some face-to-face conversations laying outside on the peanut, or on the soccer field, or in the outdoor classrooms, and so that’s starting to feel a lot more normal,” Justin says. “It’s starting to feel like Athenian again.”