Rye students are in school full time. This is what 'back to school' looks like.

Sophie Grosserode
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

With COVID-19 case counts down, vaccinations up, the weather warming and several high-profile studies supporting the safety of schools, Hudson Valley districts are taking a leap they have been planning since last March: bringing students back to school full time.

“Our data collection from the beginning of the year [shows] absolutely no in-school transmission,” said Rye Superintendent Eric Byrne.

“The combination of knowing what the data was telling us, knowing what the current research on distancing was telling us, working with the [county] Department of Health on our plan, and access to vaccines for our staff made [it] the right time to bring kids back to school,” he said.

Students at Rye Middle School  walk between classes on Thursday.

But what does a springtime "back to school" mean in a world that continues to be changed by the pandemic?

The Journal News/lohud spent a day last week in the Rye school district, which has welcomed back students in grades K-10 for full-time, in-school learning in increments through March. The district plans to welcome back grades 11 and 12 on April 7. 

Students are masked and separated by three-sided desktop barriers, but, outside of that, the buildings are striking in their normalcy. In some classrooms, there wasn’t a Chromebook in sight.

The morning at Osborn

It’s Thursday morning at the Osborn School, a tantalizing two days before spring vacation, and students are arriving.

Osborn is a neighborhood elementary school, so instead of a line of buses, a line of students troop up the sidewalk hand-in-hand with parents and siblings, outfitted in brightly colored (and only sometimes clashing) rain jackets and masks.

One student zooms through the crowd on a pint-sized scooter. Another calls over her shoulder, “Hurry up, it’s 8:34!” as she breaks into a run. 

Parent volunteers in Day-Glo vests wave cars through a loop so kids can jump out. One mother stops her car in front of Byrne and thanks him, while her child disembarks, for getting all the students back in school. 

Yoshie Sugayama walks her children Yukako, 9, and Yuriko, 6, to the Osborn School in Rye on Thursday.

Until early March, Osborn ran on an AM/PM model to accommodate social distancing. Half its students came to school in the morning and half in the afternoon. 

Then kindergartners and first graders returned full time on March 10. Grades 2-5 came back on March 17. 

EDUCATION: Standardized tests are coming. Two school districts have bold plans to make them optional

SPRING VALLEY FIRE: On his birthday, responders rally for fallen firefighter's son

POLITICS: Who should investigate Cuomo's VIP tests?

Now, co-teachers Ellen Litt and Jennifer Tavolacci begin the day with a full class of fifth graders and a community building activity. Students are contemplating something they’re grateful for, an easy assignment at the moment.

“They said, ‘I'm so grateful to have sports back in person. I'm so grateful to be back in class with all of my friends. I'm so grateful to be in school for a full day,’ " Litt said. “I think a lot of that is the social piece. They're excited.”

Litt and Tavolacci’s class has both special and general education students. The students sit in pairs and have a variety of options: wobbling stools, high-top chairs, reclining floor seats. They are separated by plastic barriers, but can still talk and interact while their teachers float around. 

Students at the Osborn School in Rye have outdoor lunch on Thursday.

“It feels good, because I can see other people I haven't been able to see during the year, and I can work with other people,” said fifth grader Anna Chicotti. “There's always someone to help in the class.”

A small number of students in Rye have chosen to continue with all-remote learning at home. At the elementary level, remote students are in separate classes with separate teachers. So teachers in school can give their full attention to the students in front of them, and no longer have to teach into a camera, as well. 

The first lesson of the day involves geography. When Litt wants the students to think about where Arkansas is in the country, she can pull down a map above the whiteboard instead of switching computer screens. When it’s time for the students to take over the activity, they can work in pairs without getting too close.

“When we first came back, we were very much focused on having them in their seats,” Litt said, “Fifth grade, they're really good with their masks ... once we became a little more comfortable with how they were managing themselves, we started doing partnerships at a safe distance.”

Across the building in Dina Gelman’s kindergarten class, 17 students are wiggling on “dance boxes” beside their desks, marked by yellow tape on the floor. After the morning dance, they sit, encased in plastic dividers, to practice writing. Gelman calls out sentences, such as “A pig likes mud,” and the students copy them.

Middle and high school return

There is no contest between between hybrid teaching and having students back in class, said Aleksey Vodyanitskiy and Victoria Dosso, math teachers at Rye Middle School.

“I felt a disconnect with some of my students,” Vodyanitskiy said. “Those students particularly needed my help, and it was really hard to reach them.”

Now that their full classes are back in front of them, it feels “homey ... much more like normal teaching,” Dosso said.

The pieces of a normal school day are taking shape. Grades 6-8 returned on March 15, and grades 9-10 came back on March 22. 

Previously, students were coming to school two days a week.

Students at Rye Middle School work in a hallway Thursday.

At Rye Middle School, students sit behind barriers at traditional desks. Some classes still use Chromebooks, and the halls are populated by small groups of students using them for independent work. Vodyanitskiy said he’s been in no hurry to use technology now that students are back. 

“I feel the kids are kind of sick and tired of technology,” he said. “We do a lot of paper and pencil ... They missed the interaction with live human beings.”

Middle school students have 10 40-minute periods a day; high school has seven 55-minute periods. Students still aren’t using lockers to discourage congregating in the halls, so they carry everything on their backs. Freshmen and sophomores are newly able to join juniors and seniors in going off-campus for lunch.

Lila Fadden, a sixth-grader at Rye Middle School, works from behind a plexiglass divider Thursday.

It's evident that students are happy to be among their peers. They chat in the halls on their way from class to class. In a freshman English class, two girls share a whispered joke during independent reading – at this point, most students are experts at hearing voices muffled by masks.

“I like going into school much more, because in my classes, I get to actually talk to the kids,” said sophomore Marissa Fink. “When I join a Google meet ... I wait for another kid in my class to come in before I go in with the teacher, but we don't really talk, like how you would when you walk into a classroom.”

Fink said she enjoyed getting to set her own pace during remote school, but it was lonely and could be hard to focus. She found tests particularly stressful, missing the camaraderie of knowing a roomful of students were going through the same thing.

Junior Amelia Ahrens is looking forward to making her full return for the same reason. She has friends in the other cohort she hasn’t really seen for months, and she misses robust class discussion that happen when everyone is in the same room.

“Class just goes so much better when everyone's there, and it's easier,” Ahrens said. “I'm actually excited to see everyone come back.”

The end of a full day

Back at Osborn, when the morning’s academics are over, students break for recess and lunch. 

On a mild day like Thursday, students eat outdoors at either end of long tables to maintain distance while masks are off. School lunches are delivered in paper bags. Parents have the option of picking up their kids for lunch if they aren’t comfortable with communal dining. 

For recess, grade levels are separated by class onto different playgrounds and fields. They don’t seem to mind the small groups, enjoying the swings and monkey bars like they did last year.

Briana Castelao teaches a second-grade English learning class at the Osborn School in Rye on Thursday for students who are not native English speakers.

“When they first experienced the cafeteria, recess, being able to play with their friends, you could just see the joy,” Osborn Principal Angela Garcia said. “That's when you realize, this is why it's worth it. They've never really experienced school the way it's supposed to be, and they're so happy.”

By 2:30, the sun is out and the day is ending at Rye High School. 

An American Sign Language class is giving silent presentations in an outdoor courtyard while English students read "Of Mice and Men" on benches nearby. A freshman band class practices its repertoire, masks pulled down students’ faces and chairs spaced far apart. A group of boys relax on bleachers in the gym, whiling away the final few minutes until the 2:50 p.m. bell.

One lesson of this year is that change is constant, even as school returns to "normal." The school district announced Thursday evening that high school Principal Derek Schuelein was leaving the job and would not return. The district will have to choose an interim principal to lead the high school for the rest of the school year, continuing to adapt.

When the final bell rings, students flood the halls and spill onto the front lawn. There’s now only 24 hours left until spring break. When it’s over, for the first time in more than a year, Rye City School District will be 100% open.

Sophie Grosserode covers education. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @sdgrosserode.