August 16, 2022

After two pandemic years, this Indiana school feels closer to normal

Students sit in Katrina Richardson’s seventh grade math class during the first week of the new school year at Decatur Middle School. - Elizabeth Gabriel/WFYI

Students sit in Katrina Richardson’s seventh grade math class during the first week of the new school year at Decatur Middle School.

Elizabeth Gabriel/WFYI

Hoosier students are starting their third school year since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Now, many classrooms are closer to pre-pandemic normalcy. 

Decatur Middle School Principal Dustin Criswell has worked in education for 16 years. A few days after classes started earlier this month, Criswell said students are off to a strong start. Partially because in-person learning looks nearly the same as it did before the pandemic. 

“You’ll notice when you go into classrooms how the arrangements with the desks and the way the classroom’s set up is very different from the way it was a year and a half ago, where they were in rows, they were spaced out – very limited social interaction,” Criswell said.

The Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township is in the southwest corner of Marion County. Enrollment was 6,700 students last year. About 1,100 students attend the middle school in grades 7-8.

Inside an English class at the school, there were around 20 students doing a writing assignment about surviving on a desert island. Students sat in small groups and brainstormed how they’d survive on an island and what tools they would use.

“A few years ago – in the midst of the pandemic – you would walk into a classroom and you didn't see many posters, you didn't see any many motivational quotes,” Criswell said. “It just didn't have a warm and inviting feel to it. But now, it's very warm, it's very inviting. Our teachers, they're smiling more – golly man, they're building those relationships with kids.”

And some of that is because of the reduction in COVID protocols. Now, none of the Marion County districts require people inside of schools to wear masks. They can if they want, but on the Friday of the first week of school, almost no one was wearing a face covering.

“Masks are optional, but we're still deep cleaning the building,” Criswell said. “You'll notice that hand sanitizers [are] outside of every single classroom. Obviously, we're encouraging kids to frequently wash their hands, but obviously they're not nearly as intense as they once were.” 

School districts are required to follow pandemic protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as state and county health departments. Last week, the CDC stopped requiring students and staff to quarantine or take COVID-19 tests in order to stay in school. 

Some schools were beginning to ease pandemic protocols last year by having in-person classes, not requiring masks during gym class and holding lunch in cafeterias instead of in classrooms. But it still wasn’t the same as three years ago. 

“I think after COVID everybody was really cautious,” said Jill Meerman,  the seventh and eighth grade physical education teacher. “I too, as a teacher – you're kind of tiptoeing around. How are things going to be, because it was all new.” 

Staff are happy to be back in the building and many students agree, but there are still challenges. Middle school has always been a tough time for kids – making friends, puberty and getting ready for high school. For some, it’s even more complicated now. 

“I’m pretty shy, and not anti-social, but it's kind of hard for me to talk to people,” said eighth grader Summer, one of the school’s co-cheer captains. “But it's pretty easy [because] people are nice here. So it's nice to talk to people who understand what you're going through.”

As for Daniel, another eighth grader, socializing has been a little different. A few of his friends have switched to homeschooling – a result of the pandemic. But he’s happy to make new friends and excited to get back to class. 

“I like to read a lot,” Daniel said. “Some scientific fiction books and algebra. I'm a real math nerd. I like numbers.”

Daniel, and all students, can expect to focus more on math and reading this year. Despite students experiencing learning loss when they switched to remote learning during the height of the pandemic, Daniel feels like his teachers are helping him work toward those goals.

One way Decatur Middle School is addressing pandemic learning loss is by extending the school day 90 minutes, twice a week. 

“I finally feel like this year, the kids coming in, we're getting back to some normalcy,” Meerman said. “And I think that's where the energy is coming from.”

Contact WFYI education reporter Elizabeth Gabriel at Follow on Twitter: @_elizabethgabs.

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