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‘The halls are just full of life’: First day of Carroll County schools brings excitement, some concern about COVID

Bubbles floated and music blared as the masked students walked off their buses and entered William Winchester Elementary School on Wednesday morning.

“We’re so delighted to have the kids back,” said Erin Sikorski, principal of the Westminster school. “The halls are just full of life.”

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For the first time since 2019, students from all over Carroll County started a school year in person.

While CCPS leaders reported the morning went smoothly, staff and students at Winchester said they were ready to be back.

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Some parents said they were nervous, partly because of COVID-19, but also due to the natural parental anxiety associated with dropping your kid off for the first day of school.

Ruby Whitlow said she was excited for kindergarten because she gets to meet her teacher. Her big brother, Rockford, was also happy to be back and looks forward to making friends.

“And maybe playing with people on the playground,” the second-grader added.

The two put on their masks, which matched their outfits, in the parking lot. Their dad, Greg, expressed mixed emotions.

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“I think we’re more nervous than the kids,” he added.

Their mom, Karen Litke, said the nerves weren’t necessarily related to COVID but because “this is the first time that all my babies are out of the house.”

Fourth-grader Ivy O’Marra, was also excited and nervous. “I’m really excited to see my friends,” she said. “And my backpack weighs like 10 pounds.”

She said it was filled with a water bottle, notebooks, binders and folders. O’Marra was standing next to Joanne Bowen, an instructional assistant, who was being swarmed by kids who were dropped off by their parents on the side of the building. Most were wearing masks at that moment.

“I’m actually really excited for the school year,” Bowen said. “It’s really nice to see the kids back.”

Along the sidewalk, some parents got out the cars to help their kids put on their backpacks or take pictures of them as they walked away.

Some shouted, “I love you,” and one parent said, “Keep your mask on, OK?”

Carroll County Public Schools is the only district in the region that started the school year without a mask mandate. However, a General Assembly committee will vote Sept. 14 on whether to approve a state board decision to mandate masks.

Carroll’s school board voted in late August to request exemptions to the mask mandate if it’s approved.

Albie Dunbar fist bumped his second-grader as he got out of the car and walked to the building. Dunbar said he’s happy that his son gets to enter a school year that looks “a little more normal.” He’s personally comfortable with his son being in school as long as the metrics and vaccine rates remain where they are.

Dunbar added wearing masks should be up to the parents.

Terrence and Jasmine Taylor, however, who were dropping off their kindergartner and fifth-grader, said they were nervous that masks were optional.

“We decided to put masks on them,” Jasmine said about their children.

Sikorski mentioned that all Winchester classrooms have air purifiers. According to the CCPS Recover Plan, the purifiers are in all student instructional spaces and some designated office areas. Health suites were provided with industrial air filtration units. Plexiglass and other personal protective equipment are available to staff and students and high-touch areas and surfaces will continue to be disinfected regularly.

As for the systemwide response to the first day, Mike Hardesty, the system’s director of transportation, said all bus routes were covered Wednesday morning and vehicles arrived on time despite delays and shortages in other jurisdictions.

Although masks are optional inside buildings, they are mandatory on buses. And Hardesty said he did not receive any reports that students were not compliant.

The only hiccups, he said, were a couple of overcrowded buses and the longer than usual parent drop-off lines that delayed buses from entering the parking lot. He said he thinks COVID could be the reason there was more parent traffic. Overall, he called Wednesday morning, “a smooth opening for us.”

Jon O’Neal, CCPS chief operating officer, agreed. He said nothing major popped up related to building concerns. Transportation was smooth and all positions, though some are temporary, were staffed, he added.

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