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‘This is What We’ve Wanted for 18 Months’: A Manchester Principal On The First Weeks of School 

Principal Paula Jones (center) speaks with the Manchester School District's bilingual liaison Jenn Wilson (left) and the district's chief equity officer Tina Philibotte (right).
Sarah Gibson
Principal Paula Jones (center) speaks with the Manchester School District's bilingual liaison Jenn Wilson (left) and the district's chief equity officer Tina Philibotte (right).

After months of uncertainty about what school will look like this fall, students and staff are starting to get into the flow again.

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At Henry Wilson Elementary in Manchester, an estimated third of students stayed fully remote for the last year and a half. Now, the hallways and classrooms are full.

On a recent morning, a second grade class of students adorned in brightly colored masks gathered around their teacher for story time.

When principal Paula Jones and a colleague walked into the room, students began talking about their trips this summer. One had visited his family in Mexico. The other chimed in to talk about his visit to Puerto Rico.

On the floor above, an art teacher rolled her portable easel and art supplies into a classroom as students from another class filed out for recess.

“This is what we've wanted for 18 months,” said principal Paula Jones later. She says the start of this school year was the most rewarding of her career — but also the most difficult.

There’s the normal commotion of September — tracking down students who aren’t showing up, working with Swahili and Spanish interpreters to communicate with parents, coping with staffing shortages, and remembering new faces and names. And then, Jones says, there’s helping some students adjust to the routines of school after so much time learning in hybrid or remote models.

“It's everything. How do we walk in the hallway? How do we sit in a chair? How do we use a pencil? How do we responsibly eat our breakfast?” Jones says. “There's probably 100 routines that we need to teach them.”

Jones says teachers are planning to build in more time to teach routines amidst academics and social skills. And so far, students seem willing.

“I was nervous they’d be like: ‘I’ve been home all this time; I don’t want to come back to rules and routines,’” Jones says. “But every classroom I walked into on the first day of school, I got a hug from a kid saying ‘Thank you for letting me come back.’”

Henry Wilson Elementary School, like many schools in New Hampshire, has already seen positive COVID-19 cases.

When a student goes to the school nurse feeling sick, they get screened for COVID symptoms. If they need to be sent home, they wait for their ride in an isolation room with an air filter.

Jones visits them after she puts on head-to-toe PPE, including a gown, KN-95 mask, and face shield.

“It’s become a part of our job description,” she says. “I do it because I want to keep my kids and family safe, right? You do what you have to do.”

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.

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