Highlands starts in-person instruction with an untraditional second first day of school

On the first day of school this year, students walked through the door and filed down the halls of Highlands High School. Hundreds of eager eyes flickered around, searching for anyone familiar to converse with. For the first time since March, everyone was finally together face to face.

September 21 was the second first day of school – the first day of the school year in which all staff and students came into the building to learn.

Initially, on August 31, the actual first day of school, students rolled out of bed and opened their Macbooks to kick off the first day of online learning. During NTI days, students joined TEAMS calls and filled out Google Docs to begin the curriculums for all their classes. 

NTI days stretched on all the way until September 17, when the first group of students (last names A-Kim) were able to venture into the building for the first time in nearly six months. On the 18th, the other group of students (last names Kin-Z) were able to come in and experience the new and improved “healthy” Highlands with all of the COVID-19 regulations in place. 

The 17th and 18th served as a gradual introduction for students and staff to the new “FTIS Healthy at School” procedures including continuous masking, different hallway and stairway procedures, and hourly sanitizing of classroom furniture.  

These procedures were put to the real test on the first day of in-person learning, when all students were finally in the building together.

Overall, the day ran smoothly, beginning with mandatory temperature checks conducted at the main entrances of the school. Thanks to new thermal imaging cameras, the temperature checks were able to be conducted in a timely manner, ensuring they did not cut into instructional time. 

Principal Matthew Bertasso discussed the thermal cameras saying, “We needed something that was quick and could check multiple students at the same time.  The handheld thermometers work but are just too slow.  We would need multiple people where with the thermals we can do it with as few as [one] person, but typically we have another person at least close by.” 

Once students made their way to their first period classes, they were met with a different classroom appearance. To ensure that all students have a six-foot bubble of space during classes, much of the extra classroom furniture, including shelves, collaboration tables, and comfy seating, had been removed. Desks were also required to be separate from one another and facing the front of the classroom, prohibiting teachers from creating collaborative seating. 

Students feel differently about the new classroom experience, ranging from fondness to indifference.

Senior Jenna Sower has enjoyed it so far.

“I thought that it was nice that the desks were spread apart. I can get more schoolwork done when I’m not in a tight pod with my friends.”

Sophomore Adam Bowman thought differently. 

“I felt that the new classroom arrangement didn’t have an impact on me, positively or negatively. I’m just not sitting right next to anyone, which really doesn’t change anything.” 

Teachers mentioned the new classroom organization rules would take a little getting used to.

Government teacher Kym Grillot said, “The biggest impact for me personally is that because it is safer to teach in rows that are socially distanced, I am unable to arrange the desks in my room into small groups, which has been my preferred furniture configuration for 25 years now.  It might make it harder to hold political discussions or collaborate on projects so to overcome this, we can use some digital tools to foster communication and build a stronger class bond.” 

As the day progressed, lunchtime posed another major difference between this year and years past. Each fourth period class started with being assigned a lunch area (either the gym or cafeteria) and a lunch time (either one, two, or three). Students were asked to book their seats during second period using Vanco Events, a concert ticket booking website, in order to help with traffic in the cafeteria as well as with contact tracing. 

Freshman Hollan Schweitzer said, “I think lunchtime is going pretty good so far. My only issue is I don’t have a lot of my friends during my lunchtime.” 

Unfortunately, once in action, a couple of issues arose with the lunch booking website. First, if two students attempted to book the same seat at the same time, both students would be “sitting” in that seat, leaving the student who got their second seatless. Additionally, multiple friend groups would try to book seats at the same table as other groups and end up with some friends not being able to stake claim to one of the seats.  To combat this, some students sat alone or took someone else’s seat, while a lot of students simply moved their entire group to a random table.

School counselor Laura Schnitzler heard about some of these issues from students. 

“There have been issues with seating,” she said, “Students are supposed to sit in the seat they reserved on Monday the 21st.  In conversations I’ve had with students, I discovered that some thought they were supposed to sit in the seat they reserved the first day they were here, either the 17th or 18th. Those days were just practice. The assigned seat is the one students reserved on Monday.” 

There were also a few challenges that emerged through students and faculty being required to wear masks all day. Though most students didn’t seem to mind keeping their face coverings on, teachers and students alike found out that communication was a little harder with everyone masked up.

 “It was much harder for me to get a “vibe” of the class with masks! I could not see facial expressions and I could not communicate nonverbally as much as I am used to,” said English teacher Shannon Henson. “Teachers are constantly communicating during class, not just through our words, but through our movements, including facial movements. My students can’t see that I’m smiling or frowning.” 

Junior Cole Lorenzen felt the masks are both a hindrance and essential.

“I’m not a huge fan of the masks because I sometimes can’t hear people speaking and it’s harder to breathe. However, I understand that they’re necessary, so I don’t mind.”

At the end of the day, students filed out of the building with slightly sore ears and noses but the satisfaction of spending the day with their peers and receiving in-person instruction. 

Senior Jasmine Rehberger enjoyed the return to school, saying, “I’m excited to be back in person because I have difficulty learning online. It’s definitely different [in school] than it was before, but I think the school is doing a great job making it as safe as they can.”

If everyone continues to follow the district’s “Healthy at School” guidelines, Highlands should continue in-person learning. However, there is a chance of a return to NTI. According to the FTIS COVID Data website, Fort Thomas Independent Schools will close and return to NTI for a minimum period of 14 calendar days if there is over a 6% local positivity rate, 25+ cases per 100,000 people countywide, or a directive from the Department of Public Health. 

Most students wish against a return to NTI, including sophomore Ava Torrano, who felt that “…NTI was good for the situation we were going through, but I’d much rather be in school, even with the masks and such.”

Despite the minor setbacks, students and staff are ready to continue safe and healthy procedures to keep learning in-person as long as possible.