Students outside social distancing and learning

ROWE  Students of Rowe Elementary School were welcomed back into the building this fall, making it one of the only public schools in the county to offer fully in-person learning.

“The kids are happy to be back,” said Principal Bill Knittle. “The parents, I think, … are so happy the kids are back in some sort of educational environment. They’re happy to see their kids are happy.”

Rowe Elementary School, which has 62 students, began classes in-person on Sept. 8, initially for half-days. Full days began Sept. 14.

“After looking at the possibilities for remote and in-person, the (Rowe) School Committee decided to opt for in-person learning,” said Knittle, noting the rationale included having small enough numbers and the space to make it work. “Between the school budget and the CARES Act and the other grants that would support reopening, (the committee decided) that we could provide the teaching staff with whatever it is they needed to make it work in this new normal.”

Families were, however, offered the opportunity to follow a remote education program, Knittle said. About 11 families have taken that route.

This year, the school removed the preschool level and instead has three multi-grade classes, Knittle explained. Each class has two indoor learning spaces, set up to allow for social distancing between students and staff. Additionally, there are three tents on the property where classes are held.

“We would break up into grade-level groups at reading time or math time, so that students were getting math at their tested ability, or reading at their reading level,” Knittle explained.

At snack times, students are required to sit 6 feet apart and not talk.

“I can’t remember the last time I saw a 6-year-old not talk for 20 minutes,” Knittle said. “But after the first day or so, they’re getting it. They’re really malleable.”

With the forest around the school at 86 Pond Road and its proximity to Pelham Lake, in addition to the walking and hiking trails in the area, Knittle said students will have ample opportunities for outdoor exploration and observation.

“Where we are, we’re lucky to have that as an option,” he said, adding that older students, in particular, are spending most of their day outside.

Still, Knittle acknowledged that before a decision on how to reopen was reached, teachers expressed concerns for their safety, as well as their ability to provide a quality education with all the pandemic-related restrictions in place.

“Students aren’t able to interact, or play together like they have in the past,” he said.

Teaching is a hard job to begin with, he said, even when teachers only have to worry about whether they’re educating their students successfully and whether their social-emotional needs are being met.

Hannah French, who co-teaches third and fourth grades, said that although she’s grateful to be back with her students, it’s been an exhausting few weeks back in the classroom.

“We really care about our students and our work as teachers,” she said. “We want to do what’s best … and right now it’s hard to know what that is.”

On top of the “regular planning,” she said, teachers are tasked with ensuring the health and safety of their students  both emotionally and physically. In general, planning and preparation requires more effort than ever before. Student activities, for instance, have to be adapted so everyone is at least 6 feet apart.

“Students ... haven’t seen each other in months; they’re excited to be back,” she said. “It’s hard to enforce the basic safety rules that come with COVID.”

One of the fortunate things about being a small community school, she said, is that it has the space and population for students to be in school safely. But even then, it can be a “juggling act” in the classroom.

“We’re constantly asking if we’re making the right choices,” French said. “It’s really challenging; it really adds to the mental load that we already have anyway, with all that we do.”

Elsewhere in the western part of Franklin County, schools that are part of the Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont regional school districts are almost entirely remote.

And after about a month of in-person education at Rowe, Knittle said, “it’s working.”

“One of the reasons I was in favor of opening up in person,” he said, “is that this staff is creative and thoughtful and dedicated to figuring out what the students need in any situation and providing it for them.”

Still, the decision weighs heavily on the teachers in the classroom. French said she has had dreams about herself or her co-teachers getting sick. She also worries about the restrictions “wearing on some of the kids.”

“There’s so much we don’t know about this virus,” she said. “Luckily, we have the resources and we need to do all that we can as safely as we can with the kids.”

Whether teaching remotely or teaching in-person is the “right” approach, French said “there is no best way.”

“I think we’re in a situation where everybody is trying to do the best that they can,” she said. “You can’t look at one school, one teacher or one situation, and say they’re doing it wrong. Everyone’s doing what’s best for them. There’s no blanket solution.”

And while being back in the classroom may be beneficial in some ways for the students, French — who has taught at Rowe Elementary for three years  emphasized the “mental load” it also places on teachers.

“It’s my every moment that I’m thinking about this stuff,” she said. “It’s a whole new piece that’s added onto our mental load. Teachers who’ve been in this profession for years are exhausted in a way they haven’t been before.”

Mary Byrne can be reached at or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne