Sixth-grade students sat hunched over laptops in a classroom at SanLee Middle School on Monday.

The day marked the return of Lee County students in grades 4-8 to in-person classes, per the school district’s reopening plan. About 915 children in those grades returned to their desks Monday, according to school spokeswoman Sharon Spence. Despite being back in classrooms, however, virtual learning was still prominent.

Students in Cynthia Wicker’s sixth-grade math class silently simplified fractions after viewing an instructional video prerecorded by the teacher. Wicker recorded the lesson so she could speak to her students without a mask on.

“It’s so hard for them to hear me through the mask,” she said. “I also have children online here who are listening to me.”

With some students online and some in the classroom, it’s more efficient for the veteran teacher to record her lessons, Wicker said. Still, Wicker was excited to see her students in person.

“When they watch the video, if they don’t understand it or if they have a question, they can ask me,” Wicker said. “I can pull up their screen and see what their answers are, and walk them through the mistakes they might have made.”

Serenity Estes, 11, said that even though she’s still completing a lot of schoolwork on the computer, it’s helpful to be back in the classroom.

“It’s easier because you don’t have hop back in a (Google) Meet and ask (the teacher) for help. He’s just right here,” she said. “It’s boring sitting at home all day.”

Classmate Amiyah Creque, 11, agreed. He said he was nervous about seeing everyone for the first time this year, but excited to return to the classroom, particularly since he lives with four cousins and a brother.

“It was kind of hard to concentrate (at home),” Amiyah said.

About 60% of SanLee Middle School’s 897 students chose to return to in-person classes, with the remaining 40% opting for remote learning from, Assistant Principal Joanna Perkins said. On Monday morning, scores of cars drove past the entrance to the school as parents dropped their children off. Before each child exited the car, a staff member checked their temperature and screened them for symptoms of the coronavirus.

“It’s all hands on deck,” said Perkins as she watched the morning influx of students.

Teachers who didn’t have a first period class, helped with student arrivals and temperature checks, she said. Elizabeth Holland, an eighth-grade English teacher who was helping take temperatures Monday, said enacting the safety protocols was a learning process.

“I’ve been teaching for a long time and it’s really like going back to being a beginning teacher, because I’ve never had to do all this,” she said. “It’s crazy. It’s new for us all.”

Teachers worried about in-person classes

It was a tough decision for some teachers to return to classroom this year, according to public comments submitted at a Lee County Board of Education meeting last week. School district officials initially told teachers they would be able to continue teaching remotely if they chose to do so, but a lack of staff forced the district to require all teachers to return to the classroom, according to Chris Dossenbach, assistant superintendent for Curriculum & Instruction.

“Now that (remote teaching) is no longer an option for teachers, some are left to face a difficult decision,” Jacqueline Roberts, a fifth grade teacher at J. Glenn Edwards Elementary School, wrote in a public comment. “To either return to the classroom which will have serious effects on their health or leave the teaching profession.”

Wicker, who has been teaching for more than 30 years, said Monday that she considered retiring this year because of the coronavirus. The CDC has said those in Wicker’s age group are at higher risk for complications from the virus.

“It was tough, but with the guidelines and the precautions they put in, I feel like it’s pretty safe,” she said. “We’re doing all the right things, with the masks, the cleaning, the separation, the small group, so that put me at ease.”

Wicker said she loves teaching, and although she has to communicate with her students online, she’s still enjoys it.

“It’s just a different way of reaching them,” Wicker said. “A safer way, right now.”