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Crater students, staff look forward to returning to school

CENTRAL POINT — Excited to trade near-empty, darkened hallways for the chatter of students and some good old-fashioned high school chaos, teachers and administrators at Crater High were cautiously optimistic Tuesday as they planned for a Feb. 2 return of students.

The halls have been mostly empty since last March after COVID-19 restrictions went into effect, shuttering most schools in the state and forcing students and families into online distance learning.

On Tuesday, a small group of welding students enjoyed some good old-fashioned classroom time, working on different types of welds and eagerly gleaning knowledge from CTE teacher Jim Miller.

A far cry from the larger groups of students who, pre-COVID, might have glanced at their cellphones regularly during class, mask-wearing students worked diligently in their assigned areas and wandered over to Miller in a steady line seeking input, not a cellphone in sight.

Administrators and teachers were working this week to set up classrooms and define daily screening processes to minimize virus concerns on campus. Dubbed a hybrid model, the soon-to-start school year will give students a chance for in-person instruction and some connection with school staff and peers two days per week. Students will be split into “A” and “B” groups, allowing smaller groups into the classroom; Monday and Thursday for group A, Tuesday and Friday for group B.

Miller said teachers were as ready as students for a return to noisy hallways. Small groups have been allowed back into Miller’s welding class this year because welding is a hands-on activity.

“We did it as best we could all spring, and we floated through the distance learning piece of it, but it just didn’t work. I laugh now because I told the kids in March, when they were sending everybody home, ‘This is going to be a monumental time in your high school career, because you’re going to get a two-week spring break,” Miller said Miller Tuesday.

“None of us really had any idea it would turn into almost a year.”

Initially Miller offered some outdoor instruction but ultimately found ways to bring small groups back into the welding shop.

“I have some kids here who are really connected, like most kids are, to their technology,” he said.

“But I think they’re all pretty sick of their screens. Since they’ve been coming back in, I don’t see them out there with their phones out like I used to.”

CAPS (Crater Academy of Health and Public Services) Principal Tom Rambo said staff were as eager to open school doors as students.

Rambo said his school, one of three on the Crater campus, had offered extra help to about 100 students each week — 25 per day on average — to provide a safety net for students needing special support and for classes, like welding, that can’t be done via video chat.

Allowing students to return to class comes with a “35 foot per student.”

“We go and measure a classroom, and it’s 15 kids, max,” Rambo said.

“Discussions with 15 kids is different than with 30 kids, so that’s a plus. We know that our teachers are most effective in person — we have math and biology content to get through — so we need to get the kids back in the classroom, no matter how many we’re allowed to have at a time. ... At least now we have that glimmer of hope it could be happening.”

Rambo said smaller class sizes, after such a long break, could even ease any student anxiety about the long-awaited return.

“We’ve talked to students and parents. There’s a lot of increased anxiety and depression. These kids have been stuck at home — a lot of them alone — for a long time now,” he said.

Busy working to perfect a corner weld Tuesday, sophomore Owen Burkhart, 15, savored a few hours of classroom time. Already planning to take welding, the class grew exponentially in appeal-factor after the teen missed half of his freshman year due to pandemic closures.

“The hands-on aspect is a nice reprieve from distance learning. It’s really nice to just be at school and to actually have a social life again even just a little bit,” said Burkhart.

“It’s been the longest spring break ever. Things are starting to come back together, I’m just hoping they stay that way.”

Crater junior Makenzie Whitaker, 16, said it had been a tough year to be in — but away from — high school. Whitaker said she spent much of the past year struggling to adapt to online learning, worrying about her friends who had a hard time prior to virus concerns shuttering schools, and missing out on typical high school experiences like prom and getting her driver’s license on time.

“I’m a good student, and I don’t have to try super hard in school to be able to get As and Bs. With online school, though, I was giving it all I had, and I was barely getting Cs. I’m a hands-on learner, so I’ve really been struggling with the distance learning,” she said.

“I’m really glad we might finally get to come back. It’s been hard for all of us. I had a couple friends who already struggled, and I was just watching them failing out.

“None of us knows how it’s all going to go or what this next year will bring, but I think we all just feel like it’s time.”

One silver lining, Miller said, is that students will have more appreciation for real connection with teachers and peers and will possess a unique set of skills thanks to distance learning and having to adapt to trying times.

“Even though it’s been hard, I will say that our kids have been super resilient and have caught on to more than we ever could have imagined that would. My 7-year-old at home knows her way around the computer. She can get on Zoom by herself and find her schoolwork,” he said.

“I look forward to when this group of kids make it to the workforce to see how they will explode the technology. We have tested them in ways we never thought we would have to. And they have risen to the occasion. ... I worry they may be behind in some ways. It’s been hard, and we need to get them back into the classroom. But what we’ve kicked them off with has been huge. I can’t wait to get everybody just moving again in a positive direction.”

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Crater High School students Matt Peckham, left, and Elmer Aguirre, attend a welding class on campus on Tuesday.