FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- Students and staff at Fort Rucker’s Ellis D. Parker Elementary School found reason to celebrate Feb. 11 as they hit the 100-day point in the school year in the midst of a world-wide pandemic.
A complicated school year by any standard, 2020-21 is going well at the four-month point of students gracing the new school’s halls, which is a testament to the talent, resilience and dedication of its staff, students and parents, according to Dr. Vicki Gilmer, school principal.
“We have had a successful year so far,” she said. “We have been solution oriented in our challenges, such as spacing during lunch times, grade-level zones and a safe recess period daily.”
While educational and development goals remain intact at the school, dealing with the safety issues raised by the pandemic is always a top consideration, Gilmer said.
“We have worked incredibly hard to maintain a safe learning environment,” she said. “Prior to opening, we had our partners at Lyster Army Health Clinic and our district personnel tour and view our procedures. We have maintained grade-level bubbles, so that we can assure there is no crossover of students. At any time, we can tell you where a student has been – right down to their seat in the café.”
All teachers and students adhere to safety measures throughout the day by masking up and maintaining social distancing. Students in first to sixth grades have their own laptop for individual use, and students in all grades have their individual bags of supplies for math, reading and other subjects, the principal added.
Teachers and staff at the school say they are comfortable with the precautions being taken and people’s adherence to the guidelines the school operates under, including Vicki Harper, sixth grade teacher.
“We are blessed to have this huge, new school in the middle of a pandemic. The size of the building and the way that grade levels are in their own neighborhoods allow each grade level to travel specific paths during the day to minimize contact with other grade levels,” Harper said. “This is important because if we did have a staff member or student become COVID positive, we could narrow down their location and their contact with others during the day.
“Our administration has put many health and safety guidelines in place,” the teacher added. “There are hand sanitizer stations throughout the school, classrooms are stocked with disposable wipes to clean surfaces, we have clear plexiglass dividers at small group tables, and teachers have removed nonessential items from their classrooms, so that student desks can be spread out.”
The new school first brought in students for in-house learning Oct. 1, then went on break for the holidays in December and resumed at-home learning for two weeks in January. Students were welcomed back into their classrooms Jan. 19, and students and staff are happy to be back where they’re supposed to be, according to Gilmer and Harper.
“Being in school is always our preferred method, but we recognize the ongoing battle with COVID-19 and will always support measures that support the safest environment,” Gilmer said. “There is so much more that can be accomplished with a full day of school and face-to-face instruction. The transition was seamless, thanks to our great parents, students and staff. We are able to transition back and forth very easily now.”
Harper is impressed with the children’s resilience in adapting to the situation, adding that things have been going “remarkably well for such an unusual year.”
“We knew back in August that this would not be a normal school year and we had to be flexible,” she said. “Starting the school year in remote, then to brick-and-mortar in October, then back to remote in January – I think the students and staff are to be commended for how well they've dealt with the uncertainty.
“I've been pleasantly surprised at how well the students have adapted to the new normal,” Harper added. “I’ve never heard a student complain about wearing a mask – they are happy to be in the building with their friends. They realize that they learn better at school.”
But there are still Parker Patriots who continue with their learning at home, Gilmer said.
“We began our second semester on campus Jan. 19. At that time, our virtual students had the opportunity to return to the brick-and-mortar campus if they wished to. Approximately half of our virtual students returned to campus. We now have about 20 students who have decided to remain in the virtual platform for the remainder of the school year. We are super proud of those students and the work they are doing, as well.”
With the great majority of students safe and happy back at school, Gilmer said she is looking forward to the rest of the 2020-21 school year, which ends June 9.
“Our goal for 2021 is to finish strong and celebrate the work accomplished during these difficult times,” she said. “It is an honor to serve our families here at Fort Rucker. The teachers and staff show up every day, giving it their all, and for that they are heroes to me.
“I would like to ask all parents and staff members to keep up the good work,” the principal added. “We are going to keep using our safety measures with fidelity.”
Harper is looking for a strong finish to the year, as well.
“This year has gone by so fast already – I can't believe it's already February,” she said. “I am one of the two drama club directors. The fifth- and sixth-grade drama club is performing ‘You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown’ in May. This is an annual tradition at the elementary school, and even though we had to put extra precautions in place this year, we didn't want the musical to be yet another thing the kids would miss out on in 2020-21.
“My goal is that, despite everything that was different about this school year, our kids will show academic growth, and whether they PCS to another post or school, or they return next year, they will know that Parker Elementary was a safe, loving environment for them,” Harper said.