Students embrace return to school as parents fret over what the future might bring

Savannah Workman
Topeka Capital-Journal
Second-grade students in Jenna Sackman's class at McCarter Elementary School, 5512 S.W. 16th St., wear masks as they work on art projects on the first day of classes Wednesday.

At the beginning of school last year, every student was remote. For some students, online classes didn't cut it.

Parents and teachers said they noticed the decline in academic responsibility placed on students, as well as a social and emotional aspect that was missing from an online format.

Community members voiced their concerns for the future of in-person schooling as they pick up their children and grandchildren Wednesday at Whitson Elementary School, 1725 S.W. Arnold Ave., after their first day.

Kat Leuhring, mother of Kaleb and Genevive, said going back to school was a good thing for her children.

"My son is autistic," Leuhring said. "I feel OK with bringing him back. He needs this. With him trying to do school remotely, he can get up and leave for 20 minutes and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Kaleb Luehring, a fourth-grader at Whitson Elementary School, 1725 S.W. Arnold Ave., shows his excitement after his first day of school Wednesday as he was brought out to his mother by teacher Adam Graves.

While 9-year-old Kaleb attended school online, Leuhring's 16-year-old daughter Genevive monitored his progress. Leuhring said that she couldn't afford a babysitter. She began to worry about her daughter's education and well-being.

"Her going back (to school), it gives her that sense of responsibility," Leuhring said. "She needed that contact. She needed her friends."

At the end of the day, Leuhring said that all children deserve some kind of normal after the COVID-19 pandemic. Leuhring said she does worry about moving back to remote learning.

“The teachers have to be more involved with these students," Leuhring said.

Wally Fischer, a former teacher of 21 years at Williams Science and Fine Arts Magnet School commended teachers for their hard work to make in-person school possible. He said he couldn't imagine the pressure that was placed on teachers during the pandemic.

Jenna Sackman, also known as Mrs. Izzy, helps students adjust their masks on their first day back to school Wednesday inside her second-grade class at McCarter Elementary School.

"There’s a rhythm that happens when kids are able to attend school on a regular basis," Fischer said. "That rhythm also develops a relation between instructor and the student. Not having that connection takes out a small piece of that relation building."

To make up for the gaps in learning, Fischer and his wife developed a Grammy and Pappa Academy for his grandchildren, due to the couple's background in education.

"In my 42 years of teaching, I have had some challenging times," Fischer said. "But nothing compared with the load that was put on teachers by trying to balance out real-time instruction and online instruction."

Parent Nicole Hammell said she isn't sure of how the year will unfold for her daughter Melody. Hammell said she is hoping it will be painless.

"I know a lot of parents had problems with online school," Hammell said. "But for her, she did really well. It was being away from people that she didn’t do well with. She’s a very social child. Only being able to see people virtually made her degress."

Students in Bethany Weber's third-grade class take turns sharing stories they wrote on their first day back to school Wednesday at McCarter Elementary School.

At McCarter Elementary School, 5512 SW 16th St., principal Katherine Cooney said students slowly trickled in the school at a steady pace. She said the first day went smoothly.

“The only tears I saw was from a sibling that was crying because he didn’t want to leave his brother that was coming to school," Cooney said. "The older kids are excited to be back to see their friends.”

Cooney said districtwide, schools reached max capacity for some grades. From kindergarten through first grade, there's up to 20 students per teacher. For grades second to fifth, the ratio is up to 25 per teacher.

"We have a lot of grade levels that are at their maximum capacity as well," Cooney said. "We’re very full. Overall in Topeka Public Schools our enrollment is up, which is wonderful.”

Students are picked up in an orderly fashion from Whitson Elementary School, 1725 S.W. Arnold Ave., Wednesday afternoon after the first day of classes.

Cooney said children didn't seem to have an issue wearing masks while in school. She said this was not only the first day for youths but also a test-run for staff and faculty to reach academic excellence this school year.

"This morning I was out greeting families (coming into the school)," Cooney said. "We don’t have to wear our masks outside. It was such a great feeling to be able to smile and to talk to parents. They haven’t seen me smile for a couple of years.”