SCHOOLS

West Lee Middle School students eat lunch outside Tuesday, staying at a social distance during the coronavirus pandemic.

For the first time in more than a year, the halls of West Lee Middle School were bustling with activity Tuesday.

Middle and high school students returned to classrooms four days per week Monday, following elementary school students who were welcomed back from spring break last week. Until now, middle and high school students were attending a mix of in-person and virtual classes.

In accordance with the state’s reopening plan, the Lee County Board of Education voted last month to allow students to return to school with minimal social distancing. Students and teachers are no longer be subject to the 6-foot social distancing requirement, but must still follow safety protocols like the mask mandate. The district’s new plan will remain in place through the end of the school year, although full-time remote instruction is still an option for all families.

At West Lee Middle School, about 53% of the school’s 700 students opted to return to in-person education this week, said Principal Jamie Cox. That’s an increase from earlier this year, when about 45% of students were attending a mix of in-person and virtual education. The school’s remaining students are learning from home.

“When you walk into the classrooms now, it’s almost like it’s back to normal, because you get to see so many faces,” Cox said. “There’s been a change kind of every quarter, but they (teachers and students) just adapt right to it. But it looks like it’s pretty smooth sailing from here to the end of the year.”

Seventh-grade student Zoie Willen, 13, said she has been attending in-person school for months, but it was nice to see more people Monday.

“This, more or less, feels like normal,” she said Tuesday, sitting with 10 or so students in art class. “I can’t hug my friends, which makes me sad.”

Willen said school was a lot more fun in-person. Another student, Laney Laudate, 13, agreed.

“I haven’t seen some of these people in over a year,” she said.

Paxton Davis, 13, said this school year has been strange, but enjoyable.

“Oddly enough, it’s probably been the most fun year I’ve had,” she said. “It’s smaller class sizes, so the people you are with, you can get to know better and you get to know your teachers better.”

One student’s assertion that virtual school has felt slow and in-person school has whizzed by was meet with a chorus of approval.

“I think it’ll be weird to come back next year, if it goes back to normal,” Paxton said. “I think it’ll be stressful to be in a room with 25 other people.”