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‘Welcome back Warriors’: Havre de Grace middle and high school students return to brand new building

When checking in with all-virtual classes, Havre de Grace Middle School Principal James Johnson would get replies from students via online chat, or at times no answer at all.

On Wednesday, in the midst of the week middle and high school students throughout Harford County returned for in-person learning, Johnson was in the Havre de Grace Middle/High School cafeteria — named Warrior Hall — chatting with students and answering their questions as they ate their lunches.

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“Here, you see kids being kids again, just engaging socially with each other,” Johnson said.

The cafeteria was not crowded, as secondary students are returning for in-person classes on a one-day-a-week hybrid basis. More are expected to return when the hybrid expands to four days a week in early April, following spring break. The youths were also separated by plexiglass dividers on each table, and students and staff throughout the building wore masks in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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Elementary students returned to their buildings twice a week March 1, and Harford County Public Schools plans to expand that to four days a week March 29. The younger children also got to experience hybrid in-person learning for about a month in October and November before spiking COVID cases in the community forced officials to go back to all-virtual classes.

This week is the first time that most middle and high school students in Harford have experienced in-person learning all year, though.

“They have to be engaged, and they have to be social people,” said Johnson, who emphasized the benefits of face-to-face interaction for young people’s mental health.

The principal also noted that a school building “doesn’t feel like a school until you get kids in it.”

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Students in Havre de Grace have the added bonus of returning to a brand-new, $80 million, more than 250,000 square-foot combined middle and high school. The new facility off of Lewis Lane has been close to a decade in the making as members of the community and elected leaders pushed county and state officials to replace the aging high school and middle school, built in the 1950s and ‘60s, respectively.

Teachers and administrators have been in the new building, which opened as the school year started in September, but students such as junior Will Lawder experienced it for the first time this week.

“I was amazed by just seeing the new school, and I was just very excited to be back and starting to feel that things were coming back to normal,” Lawder said of his impressions when he walked in Wednesday morning.

He was “very excited” for his first day of in-person learning, he said, “because I get to see all my teachers and friends, and it’s just a great learning environment.”

Senior Nigel Pearson also was glad to be back in person, noting how much students benefit by being face-to-face with their teachers.

“You can’t rely on sixth-graders that are home alone to do their own work,” he said. “They need to be here.”

The high schooler mentioned some benefits of virtual learning, such as taking on the responsibility of sending emails to teachers, something his parents had done in the past, as well as the importance of meeting deadlines to turn in work — the online system for submitting assignments closes out after a deadline, meaning students have to turn it in before then, according to Pearson.

Spring sports also started this week for high school students, but they have not been able to play fall or winter sports, meaning Lawder and Pearson could not play basketball for the Warriors this year. Both played on travel basketball teams, and had some interaction with college scouts through sports camps.

Lawder has been visiting the Arena Club in Bel Air every day after school, lifting weights and practicing basketball, “to get my body ready for senior year.”

Pearson could not play his final season for Havre de Grace, but he plans to attend Brookdale Community College in New Jersey next year. He will major in psychology and play basketball for the community college, with plans to transfer to a Division I school after two years.

Lawder feels like he has matured a lot this year and realized that he cannot take anything for granted in life, but also that “life is boring without interacting with people, without being at school with your friends.”

He and Pearson also described how they feel protected from getting COVID-19, with cleaning, masking and social distancing measures in their school.

“I feel that they take the necessary precautions by cleaning everything, that it is just going to be a safe environment,” Lawder said.

Students sat behind plexiglass barriers, in small groups of six to seven, while in their classrooms. School custodians also work “around the clock” to keep the facilities sanitized, plus administrators ensure students follow all safety protocols from the county health department and school system, according to high school Assistant Principal Brad Spence.

“So far, they’ve been doing a wonderful job,” he said of the students.

Spence is a 1998 graduate of Havre de Grace High and is in his fifth year as an assistant principal at his alma mater, out of a 19-year career as a teacher and administrator with HCPS.

He guided an Aegis reporter and photographer through the building Wednesday, and along the way greeted students, workers putting the finishing touches on the building and answered questions from teachers and staff.

“When kids are in the building, the energy gets cranked up so much higher,” said Spence, who noted his own energy has been boosted since the return to in-person instruction.

“Having kids come back into the building has certainly lifted my spirits and energized me again,” he said.

Teachers in the middle and high school wings of the new building are glad to have their students back in person, too. They are providing instruction simultaneously to those in class and those learning at home on their computers.

“I am so, so, so happy to have them back,” said Alyssa Sansalone, who teaches ninth and 11th-grade English. “It is so nice to see their faces.”

Sansalone has been with HCPS for six years, all of them with Havre de Grace High School. She said she is happy to have her students back, even on a hybrid basis, because she can have interactions such as joking around with them or see if they are having any trouble with their work.

“Just seeing them smile behind their masks is very nice,” she said.

Rebecca Rogers teaches early childhood education, part of the school system’s career and technology education pathway. Her new classroom has one section set up as a preschool classroom for children ages 3 to 5, and the other half set up for the high school students as they learn about planning and preparing lessons. There also are windows between the preschool and high school spaces, through which the older students can observe the children.

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Rogers did not have a separate space for preschoolers in the former high school on Congress Avenue.

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“We’re super excited about [the new building], because now we have a dedicated preschool space,” she said.

Rogers is currently focused on teaching lesson planning and preparation to sophomores, juniors and seniors, as well as a few freshmen who are in her class, but she expects to have preschool children in during the next school year.

“The step back into the classroom has been really exciting, for teachers and students alike,” she said.

Like her colleague Sansalone, Rogers has spent her entire 10-year career with HCPS at Havre de Grace High.

Sansalone highlighted the small student body at the high school, which helps teachers build close relationships with students, getting to know their backgrounds and families. She also described the school staff as a family.

“Everyone is so welcoming, everyone is so encouraging,” she said.

Seventh-grade social studies teacher Liz Nemeth, who grew up in Havre de Grace and graduated from HHS in 2003, has spent her 14-year career at Havre de Grace Middle; she currently teaches world history.

She said her students are excited to be back in class, with some saying they wish they could be there every day. Nemeth also built relationships with them virtually this year, through techniques such as asking warm-up questions about how they are doing personally, before starting her lesson.

“I feel like I know my kids as they come in the class, because we’ve developed a relationship through virtual learning as well,” she said.

Nemeth also discussed the excitement she has seen among students as they experience their new school.

“Havre de Grace students are finally getting this access to technology and resources that are built for the 21st Century, that are going to prepare them for college and careers,” she said.

“Their eyes truly light up when they see the resources that are in this building, so it’s really exiting to live that experience with then,” Nemeth added.

Seventh-grade social studies teacher Katelynn Ruby, whose focus is ancient history, is in her first year with the middle school and ninth year with HCPS.

Ruby is a 2006 graduate of Aberdeen High School and had Spence, the HHS assistant principal, as a social studies teacher at the time. She comes to Havre de Grace from Magnolia Middle School, and praised how the HMS staff have welcomed her during a year of virtual learning.

“They’ve all been really, really welcoming, which is awesome,” Ruby said. “To feel that through the virtual world is really nice.”

Her students have been “thriving a lot more” since coming back to the classroom, and the surrounding environment “makes everybody excited to be here and learn, and feel safe,” Ruby said.

Although her focus is ancient history, such as Greek and Roman civilizations, Ruby has discussed with her students living through history-making events like the present-day pandemic.

“I think, in a way, the virtual world has allowed us to discuss what’s going on from their viewpoint ... how it’s impacting them, and getting their viewpoint on history, which has been awesome,” she said.

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