With the buzz of a bell, students filled the halls of Highlands Ranch High School, hurrying from their first to second class period. It was a sight not seen in roughly one year — a Douglas County …
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With the buzz of a bell, students filled the halls of Highlands Ranch High School, hurrying from their first to second class period. It was a sight not seen in roughly one year — a Douglas County high school with all of its students back in the same building at once.
Earlier that morning Principal Chris Page stood at the school's student entrance with a welcoming committee, cheering for his 1,668 high schoolers as they arrived for the Douglas County School District's first day of 100% in-person learning since the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
“It's good to have the kids back,” he said. “I think they bring energy to a building.”
Although elementary schools have conducted full in-person learning since Jan. 5, secondary schools began the semester remotely before launching a hybrid model. Middle and high schools transitioned to full in-person learning March 22, the day after spring break.
The last conversations Page can remember before spring break 2020, as districts throughout the metro area announced schools would shutter amid the health crisis, were people speculating the closure might last two weeks tops. Then as COVID took off, “it felt like we may never have normalcy again."
Things still aren't normal, and they won't be for some time, Page said. His students wore masks. They walked along one-way paths taped out on the floors, past hand sanitizing stations and stickers reminding them to keep 6 feet apart.
Still, his day began with meetings about holding major events students missed out on last year, like prom and graduation.
“To talk about the things that make high school feel like high school again, man, it's emotional,” he said.
Senior Stella Alsamardli said being back felt odd after students spent so much time in hybrid and online learning. She was excited too, she said, hopeful in-person learning would help students socialize again and get better quality education.
The past year was far from ideal, she said. Online days were difficult during hybrid learning but she also found silver linings. The 17-year-old had more control of her schedule during remote learning times, she said.
“I think it definitely taught me not to take things for granted because we don't know what we have until we lose it,” she said. “It also taught me how to adapt.”
For her final quarter in high school, Alsamardli was focused on keeping a positive attitude, and optimistic she could experience senior milestones like prom.
Jane Engle, a textbook manager at Highlands Ranch High School's library, said staff are excited to have students back and want to give them an “as normal as possible” end to the year by planning those big events.
As a staff member, Engle felt protected coming back after receiving both her COVID-19 vaccinations.
“Having the vaccine is what makes it feel OK,” she said.
Page said staff are cautiously optimistic and also anxious about going back.
“While a number of them have had their vaccine, there's still concern about COVID. It didn't go away,” he said. “They don't want to shut down again.”
Page said the school was never forced to temporarily switch to remote learning this school year, as numerous other schools did amid mass quarantines and substitute teacher shortages.
He credited that to strict COVID precautions.
Entering this final quarter, he's asked teachers to keep classrooms ready and open to prevent any lingering in hallways. Classes, especially the longer 90-minute sessions, will take outdoor breaks when possible. Bathrooms and common areas will be cleaned every hour on the hour. Extra personal protective equipment is on hand for students.
Vaccinated teachers will not need to quarantine, although students will if exposed.
Interim Superintendent Corey Wise also came to Highlands Ranch High School on March 22, welcoming students and talking to staff about their experiences during COVID.
In-person learning will mean more engagement and better access to teachers for students, he said. COVID-19 posed extraordinary challenges this past year, Wise said.
“You had to rethink things and set up systems that you never would have dreamed about,” he said.
The most difficult part was navigating the sheer volume of public opinion, which was often deeply polarized regarding schooling during the pandemic, he said. District leaders knew they would not keep everyone happy, he said, particularly with so many factors out of their control.
“I think everyone has good intentions but we each want different things,” he said.
Wise said remote and hybrid learning taught students self-discipline and organization. The community persevered, he said.
“I think some of the greatest things that people can do is reflect,” he said.
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