The News-Press and Naples Daily News are highlighting families, students and teachers on the first day of a non-traditional start of school. This story will be updated throughout the day.
Donning a camo-style Tanglewood Elementary School T-shirt, 7-year-old Maxwell Claypool climbed into the backseat of his dad’s truck and gave his mom a goodbye kiss and hug.
He was headed off for the first day of school in Lee County, and, in that moment, things seemed fairly normal.
Minutes earlier, mother Beth Collette helped her son check a plastic Target bag beside his backpack to make sure he had all his school supplies. Dad Chris Claypool was in the kitchen, wiping up some spilled Lucky Charms cereal from the kitchen counter.
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There was even the typical “oops-I-forgot-something” moment when the family’s Ford truck pulled back into the drive.
But what was missing was Maxwell’s identification sticker — something to help employees recognize the rising second-grader as he entered the schoolhouse for the first time in over five months due to the COVID-19 virus.
“It just feels different,” mom Beth said as she stood out in the driveway, waving her husband and son off. “Hopefully, it will be more normal than not, you know what I mean, more normal than the picture in my head.”
In mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic led to the swift closure of brick-and-mortar school buildings nationwide, switching kids and teachers into distance learning.
Monday marked the first day of school in Lee County.
Families were given a choice on how they wanted their kids to learn this fall, including in-person or virtual options. According to the district’s Sunday enrollment count:
- 40,984 students will attend face-to-face instruction
- 36,078 students are enrolled in Lee Home Connect, a live, virtual model of instruction that runs the typical hours of the school day.
- 6,461 students signed up for Lee Virtual School, a fully online K-12 public school that has been around for 10 years
- 2,666 opted into parent-led homeschool
In-person instruction made the most sense for Maxwell’s family as they wanted to recreate a sense of normalcy for their son that they feel he has been missing out on for the last five months.
“We’re just going to put our faith in the school system,” mother Collette said. “I think they worked a lot of things out over the summer, so I think it’s going to be fairly normal…”
She trailed off thinking of socially distant classrooms, face masks and the fact her son has only seen a picture of his new teacher.
Collette thinks she may have met her during a drive-thru open house at the school, when she picked up a packet of paperwork, but at the time none of the teachers knew who would be in their classes.
When Maxwell was finally assigned to a class, she got a phone call from the teacher.
“That sounds strange,” Collette reflected. “Typically, we meet (the teacher) once or twice before school starts.”
But the family agreed whatever was to come in the school day had to be better than the fourth quarter of last year — a time when social Maxwell struggled with the monotony of sitting behind a computer doing review work.
Maxwell is hoping to recapture the “fun” of learning in a classroom and being around other kids.
“I’m looking forward to seeing my friends because I really, really miss them,” he said. His biggest worry: other kids may run faster than him at recess or P.E.
Virtual school faces all-new challenges
Ana Morera is starting out her seventh year as a Lee Virtual School instructor, but she’s never experienced a first day of school like this before.
During the past two months, the fully online K12 public school’s full-time enrollment swelled from a few hundred students to over 6,400, requiring over 150 new teachers to be brought onboard at a school that normally has 32.
Schedules are still be worked out, too, as enrollment and hiring data changes daily.
Plus, the back-to-school process hit a big snag Monday because the district’s main source of communication – email – went down and was still spotty hours into the first day of school.
“Besides the email that freaked us out, so far it’s going good,” Morera said with a laugh, adding that the theme of the new school year is “be adaptable.”
“We have to be able to be very flexible, and I guess patience go hand in hand,” Morera said. “You have to be able to take whatever is thrown at you.”
Morera is a teacher on assignment and acting as the assistant principal for grades 6-12 in Lee Virtual School. Prior to this year, she has taught math classes and served as a team leader for all the subject areas.
While she works from the bedroom of their Cape Coral home, husband Joel keeps watch over their two boys.
Joey, an 11-year-old who is in his third year of being homeschooled, is working at the kitchen table with his ABA, or applied behavior analysis therapist. Jayden, 8, is logged into Lee Home Connect for his third-grade class at Pelican Elementary School in Cape Coral.
Instead of teaching students, Morera is focused on training-up new hires. Her goal for Monday was to monitor Zoom orientations.
Normally, the school hosts an in-person welcome event over the span of three days, but that wasn’t possible due to COVID-19 and the tremendous growth the school has seen this year.
The Zoom sessions are teaching students how to access the platforms, submit work, Zoom etiquette and how to address teachers when they call them, as well as turn in an assignment to get the feel for what’s expected.
Twice-a-day Zooms are planned throughout the week for grades 6-12, and on Monday that added up to 17 Zoom links. Each have at least 280 students assigned to them, with at least one veteran teacher leading the discussions while a handful of new teachers act as assistants.
“I’m nervous, very anxious,” Morera said, standing in front of the work-from-office she has setup in her master bedroom. “I didn’t sleep much, I went to sleep at 2 in the morning and woke up at 7. I’ve been very anxious.”
Enrollment is expected to change over the next few weeks, as part-time students are added into the mix and students figure out if Lee Virtual was the right fit for them during the school’s grace period.
Class sizes are a big concern for Lee Virtual employees and leave Morera questioning if they will be manageable.
“Really what concerns me the most is that even as a geometry teacher, the most I have ever taught was 150 or 160 students, that’s been the most, and we’re having to carry a load of 270 students,” Morera said. “We’re not sure how we’re going to do it.”
She’s also concerned about the drastic uptick in students identified as ESE, which has grown from 30 kids to about 500, and a handful of English learners to about 1,300.
“Last year was easy, and I thought it was hard,” Morera said of having 130 geometry students, both full and part-time. “It was a piece of cake. I did my live lessons, it was easy to respond to them. I knew exactly who they were and now it’s kind of like just all over the place.”