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Ready for a new normal, Wisconsin students return to school

Community-building on the forefront of staff and parents' minds as COVID-19 mitigation strategies ease at Madison schools

A teacher kneels down to speak to a student sitting in a desk.
Kindergarten teacher Carolyn Ward, right, greets new student Daylen Rouse, age 5, on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022, at Lake View Elementary School in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

It’s Daylen Rouse’s first year at Madison’s Lake View Elementary School, and he’s excited about his desk. The kindergartner is also looking forward to learning his ABCs, his numbers and how to write his name.

Daylen, 5, attended the school’s first welcome back event since the pandemic shuttered in-school events and moved them online in 2020.

Rasheena Rouse, Daylen’s mom and mom to fourth-grader Damir Rouse, said bringing her sons to tour the school before the new year begins makes all the difference.

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“It was kind of difficult not being able to come into the classroom and walk them in to see their first day and take pictures,” she said. “So it’s nice to be able to do that now.”

The Madison Metropolitan School District announced its updated COVID-19 mitigation policies on Aug. 16, ending its mask requirement, eliminating physical distancing and allowing visitors back to schools.

That opened the doors to Lake View’s Tuesday evening welcome back event, something Lakeview Community School Resource Coordinator Rachel Deterding called “special.”

A teacher leads a conversation with a new student in a classroom.
Kylie Taylor, center, and 5-year-old Elliot Kirchner, left, meet with kindergarten teacher Savanna Townsend, right, on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022, at Lake View Elementary School in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

“We’re just extremely excited to have everybody back in person for a family event. We’re looking forward to getting to know our new students, seeing our returning students and just providing a space for families to connect with each other and just be joyful before school starts,” Deterding said.

With masks highly recommended but not required, Deterding expects this year will have a mix of students and staff masking and not — something teachers plan to address with students.

“We don’t need to ask why you’re wearing a mask. We just let it happen,” she said, adding that she’s eager to see more faces this year.

“There’s a lot of nonverbal communication that happens when you’re talking with someone,” Deterding said. “I think it’ll be good for people’s social emotional development to be able to see someone’s whole face.”

For kindergarten teacher Savanna Townsend, being able to meet her new students and their families before the first day of school helps ease the transition for first-time elementary students.

A wall of windows in her classroom opens up to the school’s forest. The lights are dimmed, and there’s soft jazz playing in the background. Townsend said she likes to set a calming atmosphere for her kindergartners — some of whom have never been in a formal school setting before.

“Kindergarten causes a lot of anxiety for kids, and I honestly think sometimes more so the families. And so, being able to come in and see the space and see me face-to-face and see that it’s not going to be this scary thing I think is really helpful for them and just helps make that transition a lot easier,” Townsend said.

A father swings his daughter on a swing set outside.
Whitney Derendinger pushes his 5-year-old daughter, Eden, on the swings Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022, at Lake View Elementary School in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Whitney Derendinger agrees. His 5-year-old daughter Eden starts kindergarten at Lake View on Thursday.

“For the first five minutes, I was pretty petrified,” Derendinger said laughing as he pushed Eden on the swing. “It gives me just a great sense of comfort, to know the environment that she’ll be in, the people that she’ll be with. It makes things so much more concrete.”

Tuesday evening was the first time Nicholas McQueen set foot in his 7-year-old son’s school. Now a second-grader, Kahmille was beyond excited to show his parents all of his favorite things in school.

“As soon as we walked in, he was all smiles,” Nicholas McQueen said. “He’s like, ‘Dad, I can show you everything, I know where everything is.’ To actually be able to do that with him, it’s pretty awesome.”

Before this year, Nicholas McQueen had to go off of Kahmille’s stories and his own imagination about what school was like for his son — who’s first two years were dominated by the pandemic.

“It was a big mystery. You have to trust the teachers with your child — not that they didn’t do a great job — it’s just always nice to actually see the people that are taking care of your child while you’re not around,” he said.

He said it’s a welcome change.

Two children sit on a bouncy piece of playground equipment.
Seven-year-old Waylon Taylor, right, plays on the playground with other students during a back to school event Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022, at Lake View Elementary School in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Still, public health leaders are urging school leaders and families to remain vigilant and get vaccinated.

“Even as new variants emerge, the COVID-19 vaccines continue to do their job of preventing serious illness that can lead to hospitalization and even death,” state Department of Health Services Deputy Secretary Deb Standridge said in a press release.

As of Wednesday, 26.3 percent of Wisconsin children ages 5-11 had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. For those ages 12-17, almost 60 percent have been fully vaccinated.

DHS Bureau of Communicable Disease Director Traci DeSalvo said a new school year is a perfect opportunity to get caught up on childhood immunizations, including the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Cooler fall weather, schools being in session, and the coming winter mean people will spend more time inside and in closer proximity to each other. Vaccination remains the best way to prevent a surge in COVID-19 cases and a disruption in our schools,” DeSalvo said in a press release.

Milwaukee Public Schools is the only district in the state still requiring masks for students and staff. Masks will be required in all schools when Milwaukee County’s community level is “high.” As of Wednesday, the county’s COVID-19 community level was “medium.”

Two students dance on a basketball court. Tents and other people can be seen in the background.
Siblings Serreh Jammeh and Edrissa Jammeh dance as music is played on the playground during a back to school event Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022, at Lake View Elementary School in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR