Back to class: BCSC students begin new school year

Students in the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. began classes on Thursday, marking the start of what could be the first relatively “normal” school year since the pandemic hit.

Of course, a normal year still brings normal challenges — early morning traffic, a sprinkle of rain and first-day jitters.

For Northside Middle School student Mwajuma Mwikali, entering eighth grade is “a little nerve-wracking.”

“It’s important to be surrounded by good people,” she said, adding that she looks forward to seeing her friends again.

Seventh-grader Morgan Clark said she’s nervous and excited about making new friends, having recently moved to Northside from St. Peter’s Lutheran.

“Small school, but once you’ve been there for a while, you get to know everyone,” she said. “And people don’t leave that often, so when they do, it’s kind of a big deal.”

Then there’s also, of course, the academic nerves; eighth-grader Kiara Athaide said that homework and deadlines can be stressful.

Mathiang Kak, also in eighth grade at Northside, quipped that the thing he’s most excited about is the school year ending.

For others, a new year is a new adventure.

Felix Small, a kindergartener at Schmitt Elementary, looks forward to making crafts. First-grader Hunter Willey says he’s heard his teacher is nice.

The first day of school brings firsts for students and staff alike. For Schmitt educator Eric Whitlock, it’s his first year as a STEM teacher instead of general education — something he’s excited about, even though it brings the challenge of working with several grades instead of just one.

For Northside’s Evan Burton, 2022-23 is his first year as principal after being appointed to replace the retiring Amy Dixon. He previously spent seven years as the school’s assistant principal.

Even while directing cars on a humid August morning, Burton expressed excitement his new role.

“This year feels like a whole different experience,” he said.

Superintendent Jim Roberts spent part of the morning taking his grandson in for his first day of pre-K.

“Just good to see the smiles and the excitement,” he said. “There’s nothing like having kids back in our buildings.”

The new semester marks a noticeable departure from the COVID-19 protocols of the last couple of years. BCSC officials have said that the school corporation is basically starting this year as it ended the last. Masks and social distancing are no longer required, though handwashing is still encouraged by school officials. Director of Health Services Kelli Thompson has also said that students should stay home if they have COVID symptoms or have tested positive.

At present, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies Bartholomew County’s COVID-19 community level as high. CDC recommendations based on this classification include masking in K-12 schools and other “indoor community settings” (regardless of vaccination status), staying up to date with COVID-19 vaccinations and getting tested if symptoms occur.

Kelsey DeClue, spokeswoman for the COVID-19 Community Task Force and Columbus Regional Health, has said the number of people seeking outpatient treatment for symptoms that are consistent with COVID-19 is “exploding.”

At present, the local task force is urging people to follow CDC guidelines but does not plan to meet formally at this time.

“I think it’s (COVID) just a part of life now,” said Schmitt parent Hanna Small. She added that she’s glad masks aren’t required at school right now, but she also understands that protocols may need to change in the future.

When asked if he expected COVID or monkeypox to affect the school year, Roberts said he would hesitate to speculate. He doesn’t “see anything around the corner too soon” but acknowledged that it’s hard to say for sure.

“This is year three of starting the school year after we shut down school at the end of 19-20,” he said. “And the previous two years, I was much more optimistic heading into the year than maybe what things ended up being like.”

For instance, masks were initially optional for the first couple of days of the 2020-21 school year, but the school board soon voted to reinstate a mask requirement amid rising community spread. However, Roberts said he doesn’t expect a similar situation this year.

Burton said that COVID-19 is still on school officials’ radar, and students are reminded during announcements to take care of their hygiene and “respect each other’s wishes.”

Still, he said he’s excited to start “basically as normal as we’ve been able to, the last couple of years.”

When asked if there was anything he expected to be a challenge this year, Burton replied that one of the things he likes about working in education is that there is something new each day.

I look at that ‘something new’ as enjoyable and exciting,” he said, “and that includes challenges.”