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'A Return To Normal': Older Students In Wichita Resume In-Person Learning

Stephan Bisaha
KMUW/File photo

For many middle- and high-school students in Wichita, Monday was the first day back on campus since the pandemic shutdown last year — and another step toward normal.

Some families that had opted for online learning last semester decided to send kids back into classrooms, now that COVID-19 numbers are down and vaccines more available. That meant more crowded hallways — and a distinct first-day-of-school feeling, especially at high schools.

“There’s been some tears. There’s been some hugs, then some, ‘Oh, my Gods!’” said Eric Filippi, principal at Heights High School in northeast Wichita.

“This does feel like it's a return to normal. . . Being able to hear the laughter of students, being able to hear the conversations, the shuffling of feet in the hallways. It definitely looks and feels like school as I remember it prior to the pandemic.”

All K-12 students now have the option to attend in-person classes five days a week. Secondary students who chose in-person instruction have been slowly transitioning back to classrooms since early March.

Wichita elementary schools have offered in-person learning all year, except for a districtwide move to online learning during a surge in COVID-19 cases around the holidays.

Sedgwick County lifted its mask mandate for schools earlier this month, but the Wichita district – with more than 45,000 students — still requires masks for students, teachers and anyone else on campus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its guidance on social distancing in schools, suggesting three feet rather than the previously suggested six feet between students.

Filippi, the Heights principal, says that has eased the return to classrooms.

“We will still give them as much space as possible, but we do have some different charts that teachers were able to (use to) set up their classroom,” he said. “Whether the students are all facing the same direction, or if it's more of a collaborative setting . . . They are able to get some amount of distance from each other.”

At the start of this school year, about two-thirds of Wichita secondary students opted for My School Remote, the district’s online learning option. In recent weeks, more families decided to send their middle- and high-schoolers back to campus.

Filippi didn’t have updated figures for in-person enrollment, but said a majority of Heights students are back to in-person school.

“There was a little bit of anxiety. . . . But the vaccinations, that lowered adult anxiety a lot,” he said. “The teachers really are just excited to get back to some amount of normalcy.”

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.