Most students in the Manchester School District are still learning remotely. But kindergarteners and first-graders returned to school buildings last week.
These younger students are the first to test out the district's hybrid learning model.
NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Ken DiBenedetto, principal of McDonough Elementary School, about how teachers and students are handling hybrid learning so far.
(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)
Rick Ganley: Now, as we said, most students are remote learning, but last Thursday was the first time in months that you had students back in the classroom. How did it go?
Ken DiBenedetto: It went great. We actually had kindergarten and first grade here. We also have two district-wide special needs programs, which we have those students come four full days, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. And we have about 24 of our EL students that also come. It went great. It went off very smoothly. And again, I think the kids were very excited to be back.
Rick Ganley: Well, kids are kids, and I'm sure that they're wanting to play and spend some time with friends who maybe they haven't seen, you know, since March. How are the teachers and school officials maintaining social distancing among these younger kids while also trying to let them socialize?
Ken DiBenedetto: Well, we have our rooms set up where, I mean, all the students do wear masks, but we do have everyone six feet apart, you know, which is a little different. And we've always been a school where we do a lot of group work, which we're still able to do some group work, but they just spread apart. So I think everybody's used to the way things have been for the last four months, even if they weren't in school. I think kids are used to wearing masks. People are used to socially distancing. And I think that's just carried over here.
Rick Ganley: Well, let me ask you about parents. How are they handling this whole thing? Is there confusion about where students are supposed to be and when?
Ken DiBenedetto: You know, I think they're doing really well with it. I think the district's done a nice job of informing parents. And, you know, we've had a few people that we've just had to remind them, you're on Thursday and Friday, not Monday and Tuesday. But most parents, they're well informed. And a decent amount of my parents would like to have the kids back in school. So some parents, they'll have all the children that are remote and then they got little ones that are here. But we do have some parents that have chosen remote learning even in [kindergarten] and [first grade].
Rick Ganley: I would say kindergarten, remote learning... what does that look like?
Ken DiBenedetto: Even in the hybrid setting, they're still doing remote, too, because if you're here Monday, Tuesday, you're still doing remote Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. So, I mean, it's definitely something that we're working on with teaching the kids how to do it. It's very helpful having them come to school because the teachers, they're seeing them in person two days a week. And then they remind them, okay, tomorrow we go on at this time. Let's make sure we got to be here at this time. This is what we're doing. This is when our breaks are. This is when you have special. And the parents are helping because, I mean, with a five year old, that's something that's a little more difficult than if it was an older student.
Rick Ganley: Yeah, you bet. Do you have enough computers to go around for all the kids?
Ken DiBenedetto: We do. I want to say last year we gave out about 200 computers. This year, anybody that had one from last year that came back to McDonough still has them. And then anybody that's asked for one this year has been coming to get them. I want to say I've given out another 200, you know. I want to say we're up to maybe 175 more that I gave out. So we have enough computers. I'm not going to have many left here, but all the kids are going to have a computer in their hands.
Rick Ganley: I know last month, district officials were concerned that there would be a shortage of teachers who could teach in person. Have there been enough kindergarten and first grade teachers?
Ken DiBenedetto: I can speak to my school and I have enough, yes. We have it worked out. It's actually perfect. I have one person that teaches solely remote in kindergarten, and I have one person that teaches solely remote in first grade. And then I have three kindergarten teachers that do the hybrid and three first grade teachers that do the hybrid. And they are also teaching remote and hybrid at the same time. So it's a little different. I'm asking those people to do both, all in the same day, but they're troopers and they're doing it, and they're working hard and you know.
Rick Ganley: Do you feel it's it's sustainable?
Ken DiBenedetto: I think it is. I think it is. Like I said, there's going to be days. I mean, well, you could be in the best hot spot in the world, and there's times when your Internet goes down. There's different things that you'll work through, but then we just plug along and get right back online. I mean, there are some challenges along the way, but these last few days, it's been great. I mean, being in an empty building for many months last year, for me, I'm not someone that can sit still. I have to move around. It's good seeing people and it's great having kids. They're just happy to be back.
Rick Ganley: Yeah, it must be nice to have life in the building again.
Ken DiBenedetto: It's awesome. It's a happy place, and I'm looking forward to the day when we have everybody back.