1 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Staff member Lyric Jones, right, with the Fort Gordon Middle School and Teen Center, provides a snack for client Destiny Jackson, 17, during the afternoon gathering Oct. 8 at the center. (Photo Credit: Bill Bengtson / Fort Gordon Public Affairs Office) VIEW ORIGINAL
2 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Snacks, relaxation and conversation are part of the picture Oct. 8 at the Fort Gordon Middle School and Teen Center, with masks, social distancing, disinfectant and plexiglass as new parts of the scenery. (Photo Credit: Bill Bengtson / Fort Gordon Public Affairs Office) VIEW ORIGINAL
3 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Getting acquainted Oct. 8 at the Fort Gordon Middle School and Teen Center are students Caleb Levering, left, 11, and Wyatt Cardillo, 12, with masks and other coronavirus-related features as new parts of the scene each day. (Photo Credit: Bill Bengtson / Fort Gordon Public Affairs Office) VIEW ORIGINAL
4 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Selena Doctor-Smith, shown here in an Oct. 8 interview, is director of the Fort Gordon Middle School and Teen Center. (Photo Credit: Bill Bengtson / Fort Gordon Public Affairs Office) VIEW ORIGINAL

The Fort Gordon Middle School and Teen Center (MST) is back open after being forced to close its doors mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The facility’s director, Selena Doctor-Smith, said that she and her team are thrilled to be able see and welcome back students after being away from them for so long.

“We really have been missing the teens, so we are relieved to be back in the facility and trying to get back into a semi-normal routine,” Doctor- Smith said.

Despite the MST being physically closed for several months, Doctor-Smith’s team remained productive. Some staff worked behind the scenes to keep students engaged virtually with online instruction and programming.

“At this age, teens really need that social interaction … and the potential for depression at this age goes up extremely high,” Doctor-Smith said. “The social interaction is so important for teens at this time, so we did what we could to provide that.”

Other staff, including Talethia Goodwin, filled in at a child development center on the installation.

Goodwin, a child and youth program assistant, said she could not be more excited to be back at the MST.

“We’re most happy about seeing the kids,” Goodwin said. “We didn’t have a chance to spend the summer with them, to welcome them back to school … It’s like the family is back together again.”

Anyone who enters the MST for the first time since pre-COVID will immediately notice changes to the facility, all for the sake of everyone’s health and safety.

“ We are taking ext

ra precautionary measures to ensure the teens’ safety and the staff’s safety – make sure that we’re not giving them anything and that we’re safe all around,” Doctor-Smith said.

Upon arrival, students, staff, and guests will have their temperature taken then be directed to a sink where they are asked to wash their hands. Masks are required, and social distancing is enforced. And while there are hand sanitizer stations located throughout the facility, Doctor-Smith said they are following all CDC guidelines, which includes handwashing as a primary method for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and other germs.

Plexiglass, or “sneeze guards,” serve as safety barriers at tables where teens sit, to include common areas and the computer lab. Chairs are spaced to increase social distancing, certain games are currently off limits, keyboards have plastic covers, and everything is wiped down/sanitized before and after each use.

“Specific games we have used in the past that have increased connection of kids, such as Twister, we don’t have those games now,” Doctor-Smith explained.

USDA-approved breakfast, lunch and snacks are still being provided, but instead students serving themselves, staff members serve them individually wrapped items from behind plexiglass, and everyone is required to wash hands before eating.

Each staff member is dedicated to one area to ensure social distancing and to keep track of each youth’s location.

“You will not see as much traffic in the facility as you have seen before,” Doctor- Smith said. “The youth can go to different areas, however, before they can go, they have to wash their hands and staff tracks their location. That is just to limit contact.”

Even with all the changes and precautions, Doctor-Smith said that planning and preparing for programs has maintained a steady pace and will eventually pick back up. In addition to a STEM program that is expanding and other programs that will pick back up, the center will be starting a UPS driving simulation program thanks to a grant it received.

“Right now we’re just trying to let everyone know that we’re back open and trying to get everyone back into the building – and that’s a struggle because of the pandemic that hit,” Doctor-Smith said.

The facility is open for before school care Monday through Friday, from 5:15 a.m. to 1 p.m. for a fee (based on total family income). Any registered middle schooler or teen can drop in between 1-6 p.m. without a fee for open recreation. All students who use the facility must be registered with Fort Gordon Child and Youth Services.

Doctor- Smith said she understands that some parents may be hesitant to send their children due to health or safety concerns but hopes they will take time to see for themselves what the MST offers.

“The only way for you to feel comfortable is to come and experience our program for yourself,” she said.

“A lot of parents are saying, ‘Why should I send them to the [MST] if I’m not sending them to school?’ This way they can come here where they have these different rooms and they can get some type of social skills built back up – especially if they don’t have any siblings,” Goodwin added.

Visit the MST’s Facebook page, Gordon CYS Teen, or call 706-791-4277, for the latest information.