As students and parents started arriving at her home for the first day of school, Yael Levin-Sheldon made sure to check everyone’s temperature as she reminded them to take off their shoes and wash their hands before anything else.
After talking with several friends who still have to report to work amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Levin-Sheldon recently offered to oversee a learning pod with eight students at her home while Henrico County schools hold classes online through at least the first nine weeks of the school year.
She first learned about the communal learning concept a few weeks ago in one of the myriad Facebook groups where hundreds of parents over the past six months have consulted one another about school reopening plans and child care arrangements while local divisions were still figuring out how this year would work out.
Levin-Sheldon, a data analysis consultant, said she’s giving up work for the next few weeks to monitor her two sons and their six middle school classmates who live near them in the Greenwood Glen neighborhood, a leafy suburban development just west of U.S. 1 near the Interstate 295 interchange.
“This way they’ll be with friends who I know have been safe like us,” she said.
About 30 minutes before the start of the school day, Levin-Sheldon texted other parents in the Richmond area about how they were getting along. Word got around fast that Chesterfield County schools were already struggling with connectivity issues.
Still, they hoped for the best. At the very least, she thought, her kids would finally get to socialize with friends after schools around the state closed in March.
Waiting in the playroom that his parents finished turning into a makeshift classroom the night before, Yael’s son Liam Sheldon and his classmate Will Sehl brightened as the two other students in their virtual learning pod walked through the door.
Liam’s smiling face betrayed his own words from just minutes earlier about not being excited for his first day of eighth grade. Will’s nervousness about whether his computer would connect to his virtual class melted away as he reveled in being back with his three friends after months apart.
“You guys are like 5 feet tall now,” said Gabriel Blanche, the shortest in the group of fresh-faced teenagers who had all turned 13 last year.
“You look like Hamilton!” Samuel Miller replied, commenting on Gabriel’s long, curly hair tied back in a way that resembled Lin-Manuel Miranda’s locks in the hit Broadway musical.
“What happened to your voice?” Gabriel shot back.
While the four eighth-graders laughed as they prepared for the day, the four sixth-grade students in the Levin-Sheldon family’s dining room sat quietly as their parents doted on them and discussed what the new daily schedule will be now that school is back in session.
After a summer of Cheerios with milk and sugar for breakfast, 6-year-old Sam Koziol decided on his first day of first grade to switch to oatmeal. Today, it’s the strawberries and cream variety , stirred by his mom and delivered to the kitchen table in a small blue bowl. Tomorrow, maybe he’ll have the dinosaur egg flavor.
Sam’s heading back to Kersey Creek Elementary School in Hanover County alone this morning. First grade is among those Hanover Public Schools decided to bring back on the official first day as a part of its reopening plan.
Prekindergartners, kindergartners, first-graders, sixth-graders and ninth-graders started Tuesday. The rest, like Sam’s 10-year-old brother, Jack, who’s going into fifth grade, start Wednesday.
Hanover is the only Richmond-area school system bringing back students in person this school year and the biggest of 10 across the state doing so.
Sixty percent of kids — including Sam and Jack — are going in person. The rest will learn online.
Though school started Tuesday, Hanover’s school system has already had a coronavirus scare. Liberty Middle School delayed its reopening when three of its faculty members tested positive for the virus, exposing at least 15 others within a two-week span. Remote learning will tentatively start Thursday.
Despite the development, Amy and Matt Koziol weren’t super concerned.
This day brings relief. They wanted the kids to go back and return to some semblance of normalcy. Amy Koziol works from home as a paralegal. The kids, she said, don’t know boundaries. Matt Koziol said elementary education isn’t his forte. He teaches law enforcement instruction to adults at the O’Gara Group.
However, it comes with risk — Matt Koziol, 50, is in treatment for cancer and has been for the past two years. It started in his head and neck, then spread.
The big concern for him was what the kids could bring home.
But when they were deciding to send their kids back in person, there was no big discussion.
“I think the option of them getting a good education is worth the risk versus a terrible education still in the little bubble with us doing it,” Matt Koziol said.
Amy Koziol handed Sam his laminated name tag with a blue lanyard sent to them in a packet by the school system. It has a pick-up number, and a mistake.
“They spelled your name wrong,” she said.
It reads “Kozial.”
When he finished his oatmeal, it was almost time to go. Sam sat down on the floor to cram his sockless feet into newly washed red Vans with shark skeletons on them.
“Your dinosaur shirts and dinosaur sharks,” Amy Koziol said.
Sam was quick to correct. “Those are zombie sharks.”
“Zombie sharks,” his mother repeated. “Oh, my bad.”
She rolled up the sleeves of his gray Cat and Jack button down with dinosaurs on it from Target.
A few more things before heading out: a snack of Chex Mix with popcorn and Cheez-Its, a water bottle, a yellow neck gaiter with Minions on it, a brand-new camo backpack with a Baby Yoda hand sanitizer.
Then, the traditional first-day-of school picture.
Amy Koziol made a chalkboard sign for the occasion.
“1st Day of First Grade,” it read. It gave the date, Sept. 8, 2020, and indicated Sam’s age, that he lost one tooth, that he loves baseball and soccer.
He flashed a grin with a gap at the bottom. Amy Koziol snapped pictures on her iPhone, Sam’s mask in hand.
“First grade,” she said. “I can’t believe it.”
It’s time to go to the bus, scheduled arrival 7:24. Before the family headed out, they leashed up Charlie, their mini black and white Australian shepherd.
They were early. Usually, Amy Koziol said, they’re running a bit behind.
She pulled on a teal L.L. Bean half zip over her black tank top.
“All right, Sam. Let’s go do this thing.”
Mary Gresham wanted to her four children to do their school work in a physical classroom, undeterred by virtual learning at home.
So she transformed her den into a classroom. She gave each of her children a desk equipped with a lamp, cubbies for their books and supplies, and a personalized, decorated cardboard poster board displaying their names, login information and school schedules.
“I was kind of concerned to see how it would all work, but now that I see it, it’s not as bad as I thought,” said Gresham, 53.
Richmond Public Schools decided to offer virtual learning to its 25,000 students this year. The school system gave out about 16,000 laptops and 6,000 Wi-Fi hotspots. The number of students who don’t have devices is unclear, but RPS has given out 7,000 tablets until the remaining Chromebooks arrive.
The School Board also decided to start class later in the day, so kindergarten through 12th-grade students can get both breakfast and lunch from their respective bus stops from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m.
Gresham said she is more worried for her youngest, Arielle, who started third grade at J.L. Francis Elementary. Her daughter isn’t as accustomed to virtual learning as her three older children, and she hopes Arielle performs just as well as she would in a physical classroom.
“I really have to get her used to being by herself,” Gresham said.
Gresham had an easier time with her daughter when the pandemic first hit, as she was working from home as well. She works as a custodial manager for RPS and is set to return to in-person work this week. Although no one will be present in the building at this time, Gresham says the custodial staff will prepare for the students and teachers to return.
To help, Gresham brought in her brother, Kevin, to keep track of Arielle and the other kids while she goes to work.
“He has always been part of my children’s support system, but since my husband died last July, he has really filled in the gap. I definitely could not do this without him,” Gresham said.
Just outside the den, Gresham’s eldest daughter, Alexis, was taking notes during her Blacks in American Music course. Next to her sat a white box with textbooks, notebooks and supplies. She keeps track of her assignments on a whiteboard, checking off each item as she finishes.
“It had really been an adjustment. It has its pros and cons to it; the pros I can focus on all my academics, but the cons to it is that I’m missing out on my freshman year experience,” she said.