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Watch now: Mattoon schools resume in-person instruction at reduced schedule

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MATTOON — Students and teachers who mostly had only seen each other via computer so far this fall got to meet in person on Monday when the Mattoon school district resumed in-person instruction.

"It was nice getting to see kids again and actually seeing the teacher in real life versus camera. I liked it," said Mattoon High School freshman Charles Stark. For example, Stark said he enjoyed getting to talk to his JROTC instructor, Todd Stokes, in person on Monday.

The district had begun the first quarter of the semester with only remote learning as a precaution during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In person instruction has resumed with the start of the second quarter at a reduced schedule to allow for maintaining social distance and for deep cleaning the schools every Wednesday. Remote learning will still be offered for students during the times on school days when they are not on campus.

Superintendent Tim Condron said the second quarter had a successful start. He said all students were screened before they boarded their buses or entered the schools, and none were found to have temperatures or other COVID-19 symptoms. He said one student did go home early with an unrelated illness. Condron said he and his administrative team visited the various school buildings to check in on the returning students.

"We are thrilled to have them back in person," Condron said.

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That excitement at students being back in class on campus for the first time since mid-March, when Illinois schools temporarily closed, was shared by the teaching staff, as well. Kim McQueen, who teaches seventh-grade math at Mattoon Middle School, said Monday felt like "the best day ever" as she got to see her students in person again.

At Mattoon middle and high schools, half of the students are attending in person on Mondays and Tuesdays and then the other half are going on Thursdays and Fridays. Those not present there follow along remotely.

McQueen said she positioned her classroom camera so that her remote learning students could see their in person classmates. The teacher said she sensed that her remote learners were a bit jealous of those in attendance and were eager to be there in person, too.

"School is a lot more than academic education. There are some social skills that are taught here, as well. They just had not had that recently," McQueen said.

Students at the Franklin Preschool and the Riddle and Williams Elementary schools are being divided between 2½-hour sessions of in-person instruction either in the mornings or the afternoons Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

Preschool teacher Amanda Titus said her students had prepared for the structure of an in-person day via their remote learning schedule and interactive activities, such as scavenger hunts. Titus said remote learning went well, but she is glad to have them back in person.

"It was wonderful. I can't say enough about how happy it made me to have kids back in the my classroom after seven months. I am just overjoyed," Titus said. She noted that her preschoolers wore their required protective masks like it was second nature for them.

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Riddle Elementary parent Heather Bagwell said her first-grader, Lucy, had been counting down the days until she could return to school to see her classmates and teachers. She said her fourth-grader, Jaxson, had gotten accustomed to the independence of online learning, but ended up being excited about the return, as well.

"I think 2½ hours (in attendance) is a great start, At least we are starting somewhere," Bagwell said.

Superintendent Condron said he encourages families, as a precaution, to plan for the possibility of their children's class or other groupings of students needing to temporarily switch back to remote learning only if someone is found to have COVID-19. The district is also offering a remote learning-only option for the second quarter for families.

The district has committed to providing off-campus childcare for families who need this service during the portions of their students' in-person instruction days when they are not on campus.

Riddle Elementary grandparent Carmen Cisneros said her granddaughter, kindergarten student Katalina, is going to the elementary childcare site at the former Carson's space in the Cross County Mall. Cisneros said Katalina's family appreciates that bus service is available for the childcare sites, and Katalina appreciates that she gets to see her friends and play fun games there. 

"I think one of the most important things is getting students to interact with other children again," Cisneros said.

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Rob Stroud is a reporter for the JG-TC, covering the city of Mattoon, Lake Land College, Cumberland County and areas including Oakland, Casey and Martinsville.

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