Lansing’s first public elementary school to return to in-person learning shares protocols

By Josh Bootsma

LANSING, Ill. (March 17, 2021) – As Nathan Hale students arrived at school on Monday morning, they walked into Hollywood, greeted by a paparazzi of teachers and staff. The red carpet roll-out marked the start of a week of dress-up days for both in-person and remote students to celebrate how far the school has come since COVID restricted traditional learning exactly one year ago.

A year full of changes

As part of Sunnybrook School District 171, Nathan Hale Elementary students’ learning was interrupted last year—as it was for students across the country—as COVID-19 started to spread rapidly last March. A March 14, 2020, Facebook post by District 171 announced that its schools would close for in-person learning for two weeks starting on March 16, 2020. As students, parents, teachers, and staff know all too well, that two weeks turned into much longer.

After starting the current school year remotely, District 171 re-opened schools in a limited hybrid capacity in late January, becoming the first public school district in Lansing to do so. After a month and a half of hybrid learning for the families that elected to return to in-person learning, District and school staff felt a celebratory week was in order to mark how far Nathan Hale has come since life changed drastically last year.

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District 171 and Nathan Hale Staff posed for a photo at Monday’s celebration. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

Welcome to Hollywood

As students exited their bus or vehicle, they were greeted with cries of “Good morning, welcome to Hollywood!” from staff. Once inside, students—flanked by encouraging staff and teachers—walked down a red-carpeted and decorated hallway to complete their usual morning routine: turn in their self-certification form, get their temperature taken, and pause in front of a computer monitor to check their mask. Some students dressed up for the red carpet event.

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District 171 Superintendent Dr. Erika Millhouse-Pettis was ready to greet students as they came to school for in-person learning on Monday, March 15. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)
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Nathan Hale Principal Shannon Shockley (in black) gives a Hollywood greeting to students waiting to have their temperature checked before going to their classrooms. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)
Nathan Hale
Teachers and staff didn’t miss the opportunity the dance down the red carpet and celebrate a year since the COVID shutdown. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)
Principal Shannon Shockley paused her red carpet routine to pose for the camera. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

As students trickled in, teachers and staff did not miss the opportunity to walk the red carpet and dance to the music as well. The celebration ended as school started and teachers and staff resumed their respective duties.

“You are amazing! We are one year in and we are rocking!” District 171 Superintendent Dr. Erika Millhouse-Pettis told some staff and teachers after most of the students had arrived for the day.

On Thursday, March 18, the second batch of in-person students will receive a similar greeting, though the theme will be rock star-related instead. The dual celebration was the idea of D171 Social Worker Diana Salgado and Nathan Hale Principal Shannon Shockley.

As school started, Ms. Martinez walked down the red carpet with her computer, allowing her remote students to experience the celebration. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

Hybrid learning at Nathan Hale

Although in-person learning is happening at Nathan Hale, it looks very little like learning did before March of last year. Of the nearly 500 students at the elementary school, the families of 133 of them opted to go back to school. Those 133 are split into two groups: 74 students that attend in-person school on Mondays and Tuesdays, and 59 students that attend on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are work and support days.

This Nathan Hale classroom is set up for five students. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)
The lunch room is full of socially-distant desks. The traditional cafeteria-style tables are left unused along the back wall. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

With such limited numbers attending, the largest in-person class on a regular school day has seven students, with more attending virtually. Some classes have as few as two in-person students.

District 171 Health Aide Shanna Koonce checks a student’s temperature as he enters the school. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

Other COVID-related changes include a socially distant and staggered lunch schedule, some one-way hallways, disabled drinking fountains (with special fountains available for filling up water bottles), plexiglass dividers for students, and marked areas on floors to maintain a six-foot distance. Students must also come to school with a self-certification form signed by a parent saying they have not been exposed to COVID or shown signs of illness.

District 171 Health Aide Shanna Koonce said the only positive COVID tests since re-opening have come from staff, none from students. Koonce worked with Superintendent Millhouse-Pettis and the principals from both Nathan Hale Elementary and Heritage Middle School to form the protocols to keep students and staff safe.

“We’ve been very lucky—should I say blessed—that no kids have been sick,” she said.

Quarantine room

If a student does feel sick, he or she is sent to a classroom that has been designated for quarantine purposes. Koonce splits duties with a district nurse to monitor the quarantine room when in use. Koonce has a PPE gown and goggles she can use if there’s a particularly worrisome case, but she’s grateful she hasn’t had to take that step yet.

“I think some [students] just have a dry throat, you know, from wearing the mask—they have to get used to it. We try to tell the teachers, you know, ‘Don’t overreact,’ but at the same time we understand as well. If they’ve been coughing, coughing, coughing, then yeah, we’ll come and sit them. Some kids just don’t feel well,” Koonce said.

Students sent to the quarantine room are required to undergo a 10-day quarantine or receive a doctor’s note to return to in-person learning.

“They’re happy to be here”

Although only a fraction of the student body is learning in person so far, students, parents, and staff are excited to back in the classroom.

“You see the students in the hallway, they’re doing good,” Koonce said. “They’re happy to be here. They miss school too.”

Nathan Hale Elementary School is located at 19055 Burnham Avenue, Lansing, IL. District 171 also incorporates Heritage Middle School, located at 19250 Burnham Avenue, Lansing, IL.