“Lion Proud, Lion Strong.”

That was the message on the electronic billboard in front of Lockport High School on Tuesday morning that greeted exactly 418 “Blue Cohort” students in grades 9 through 12 on their first official day of the 2020-2021 school year.

Split into two groups — Blue Cohort students, whose last names begin with letters A though K, and Gold Cohort students (L through Z) — in kindergarten through 12th grade, Lockport youths are beginning the school year in a different way than they, or their parents and grandparents, ever experienced before. Only about half of their classmates are attending school “in person” on any given day because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic resulted in all schools in New York state closing in March and since then has forced districts throughout the state to restructure almost every aspect of the education system, from busing to seating arrangements and movement throughout school buildings.

Parents, as well, are being asked to do more than ever before, including: performing a health screening on their child before he or she boards a bus or is dropped off at school in the morning; and keeping a child home as well as contacting their pediatrician if the child’s temperature is 100 degrees or higher. 

The new rules include, as articulated by Lockport City School District Superintendent Michelle Bradley: “Students will wear masks while riding a school bus and while in school. Teachers will provide mask breaks throughout the school day, including meal time. Cleaning and disinfection guidelines will be followed and include high touch surfaces in classrooms, offices and restrooms.”

“Blue” students will attend school in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays and participate in remote learning on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. “Gold” students will attend school in-person on Thursdays and Fridays, and participate in remote learning on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

“Knock on wood, it has gone very well so far,” LHS principal Dawn Wylkie said about noontime Tuesday. She credited excellent and thorough planning by the district and teamwork as providing the keys for a smooth opening to the unprecedented school year.

At the Union-Sun & Journal office, district sales manager Nancy Green said she received a text from her daughter, a Blue student, three minutes after arriving at LHS.

“I don’t like this” was the message.

Green said after explaining that everything is being done to create the safest possible learning environment, her daughter sent a final tweet, replying, “I know.” 

At North Park Junior High School, at 11 a.m. principal Bernadette Smith said things were going “smoothly, so far.” About 300 Blue students arrived at school on Tuesday morning, she said, adding that about 30% of the North Park student body opted for full-time remote learning in 2020-2021. The same percentage of the high school student body opted out of the hybrid schooling model.

“We were expecting the unexpected because this year has been so crazy,” Smith said. “But parents have been very cooperative throughout it all and they’re really stepped up, did their homework and they’ve become great partners. The kids all came prepared with masks today and they’re following all the rules that we have right now.”

Desks at district schools are being paired to ensure safe social distancing. Students in the same cohort will not be sitting together, administrators said. Tables will also be placed to maintain six-foot social distancing.

In her welcoming address to students, Bradley reminded parents that the district’s comprehensive School Reopening Plan is available at www.lockportschools.org/reopening.

“Although this is not the way we want to begin a new school year, we know we must adjust to a new normal. In doing so, we will be maintaining a focus on academic instruction to enhance student performance and address learning loss associated with COVID-19,” she said. “As we open with a global pandemic as the backdrop, our efforts will go towards balancing education equity for all students and the health, safety, and well-being for all people.”

Police patrols were stepped up throughout the area on Tuesday morning. Lockport Police, New York State Police and Niagara County sheriff’s deputies were scattered throughout Lockport and all school speed limit warning lights were flashing for the first time in six months.

School re-openings have been coordinated through recommendations and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the state education and health departments, Bradley said.

Any parent or caregiver of a Lockport student who has a question or needs assistance with remote technology may call 478-4485 or email rlipuma@lockportschools.net.

Roy-Hart, Barker schools open

In Middleport, Royalton-Hartland district Superintendent Henry Stopinski said he got “choked up” when he saw school buses at the campus entrance Tuesday morning.

“I was very excited to see students in the building. The students were excited, everyone’s complying with the social distancing and the masks,” Stopinski said.

Like most districts, Roy-Hart is employing the hybrid learning model, meaning roughly half of all students are reporting to school while the other half learn from home on any given day.

On day one, Stopinski said, he observed no problems on the buses and food service appeared to go smoothly. Elementary and middle school students picked up bagged breakfasts prepared by cafeteria workers and ate in their classrooms.

“The first day of school is always exciting, and kind of nerve-racking this year, too, because people don’t know us,” Stopinski said. “We’re teaching all over again. The materials that were being shared (in classrooms) were also being delivered synchronous for the students at home. The same materials that were being shared to students face-to-face, is up on the website for students to do that asynchronous, at their pleasure. ... I’m certain here’s going to be a few glitches that we’re going to learn about, but that’s part of opening school, as well.”

Barker Central School District also had a positive opening day, according to Superintendent Jacob Reimer.

‘We’ll be able to continue this,” he said, adding that the ultimate goal is to extend the amount of days students attend school in person.

“Whatever comes our way, we’ll be ready, if we add a couple days, great, if we have to lessen days, that’s what the technology is for,” Reimer said. “We’ll be ready.”

Reimer said his district was able to socially distance students at lunch by giving each one a separate desk, all facing in one direction, within the cafeteria. He said students wore their masks while getting lunch and could take them off once they got to their desk.

“I taught a class today, I’m a certified science teacher,” Reimer added in regard to the remote learning aspect of the day. He said he heard some teachers had technical difficulties, but on very minor issues that didn’t affect their ability to teach the class.

“I’m quite hopeful for the future,” he said.

Newfane schools will open on Thursday.

US&J reporter Ben Joe contributed to this report. Follow reporter John D’Onofrio on Twitter with “Good Morning, Lockport, N.Y.” weekday mornings.

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