Back to school, again: Boyle County Schools welcome students

At Woodlawn Elementary School on Monday, Kecia Elliott, a preschool instructor, was among the teachers and administrators at the school enthusiastically welcoming students into the building during student drop-off. She took temperatures as kids exited cars, made sure they had their lunch boxes and pointed out which kids were in her class.

She said she enjoys virtual learning and Zoom, but there’s nothing quite like having students in class and hearing their voices, seeing their faces and seeing them excited to learn.

One of the changes in instruction she’s seen with in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has been smaller class sizes, which allows for more one-on-one learning, and one thing that has surprised her a bit is how adaptable kids have been to masks and the hurdles the pandemic has thrown at them.

“They’re so resilient, even through all this,” she said.

She chatted with students as they walked into the building. As one boy asked where his friends were, she replied, “I’m your friend,” and he said, “No, my little friends. You’re my big friend,” which amused her.

“You just never know what they’re going to say,” she laughed.

As the principal Bernice Bates welcomed students into the building, she said the students were excited to be back, especially since Woodlawn is in a new building, the old middle school, which is now renovated and remodeled. Some of the students hadn’t been in the new building yet, she said.

Students are excited to be back at school to see their friends and learn in person, even with masks and other guidelines, she said, and parents, grandparents and other guardians are happy kids are back too.

“It’s what’s best for kids, so getting them back in school, getting them into a structured routine — even though our teachers have done a fabulous job with hybrid learning — having them back in the building and having them in front of you — there’s no substitute for that,” Bates said.

The return to in-person instruction five days a week came after Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order Feb. 23 recommending schools could offer or expand in-person learning beginning March 1. According to a notice on the Boyle County Schools website, the change also came after the district reviewed the county incidence rate with the Boyle County Health Department and determined students could “pivot away from the A/B Hybrid.” Virtual and self-paced learners will continue as they have during the semester, according to the notice.

Superintendent Mike LaFavers said all school districts in Kentucky are required to follow Healthy at School guidelines, which includes masks, social distancing and thorough cleaning procedures. For this second semester of the school year, he said district-wide, 75% of families have chosen in-person learning for students. He said district staff who received the vaccine received their second dose on Feb. 26, “an important step for sure.”

“We have done an outstanding job executing our virtual learning plan all year,” LaFavers said in an email. “Having said that, the next three months are critically important to us and I am confident we are poised to end the year strong.”

Director of food service Katie Ellis said the district will continue to provide access to free breakfast and lunch both to in-person learners and virtual and self-paced learners for the remainder of the school year.

“This is made possible due to a variety of waivers provided by the USDA and Kentucky Department of Education that allow us to operate under the Summer Food Service Program (opposed to the National School Lunch Program that we typically operate under during the school year),” she said in an email.

Ellis said in-person learners can eat breakfast and lunch onsite Monday through Friday with no charge and will eat in cafeterias to the extent they can possible, but where they eat is a school-level decision.

Virtual or self-paced learners can pick up bulk meal kids that include breakfast and lunch meals on a weekly basis. The bulk meal kit distribution will continue to take place at Boyle County Middle School on Tuesdays from 5 to 6 p.m.

“Meals are provided on a first-come, first-served basis,” Ellis said. “Consistent participation week to week helps our team ensure that we are preparing the correct number of meals. Children who are in-person learners should not participate in the weekly bulk meal kit distribution because they are already receiving free meals at school.”

The district will have “pop-up distributions open to all children 18 and under to help provide continuity of meal services over spring break and as we transition to our summer feeding program at the end of the school year.”

This will be similar to the holiday meal kit, she said, and when pop-up distributions get announced, the district will state they are open to both in-person and virtual or self-paced learners.

“All families are encouraged to participate in meal services regardless of financial position,” Ellis said. “Our ability to continue to offer this high level of service and provide quality food products on our menus is directly tied to participation in the program. Funding for this essential work during the pandemic and in a normal school year is based on the number of meals served. The more children who participate in the program in-person and through the bulk meal kit distribution, the more revenue we receive to reinvest into providing these essential services for families.”