GAHANNA, Ohio (WCMH) – Thursday marked the end of summer break for thousands of Central Ohio students. Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools (GJPS) and Westerville City School District (WCSD)were among the first districts to commence the school year.
“I’m really nervous, but I’m also really excited,” said Gemela Ponder, the mother of a kindergartner at Lincoln Elementary School. “He’s really excited. He’s been talking about it all morning.”
Malachi Ponder, 5, is one of the first students to attend class in the new, state-of-the-art building. It’s the first new school built by GJPS in nearly three decades.
“I’m excited about the school,” he said. “I love it!”
“I’d rather have him in school learning and interacting with other kids and teachers, rather than doing the virtual learning,” his mother said.
On top of the logistics of opening a new school, district leaders have been charged with the herculean task of developing safety policies and plans to get students back on track with their studies.
“There was so much disruption last year. It really hurt learning,” said GJPS Superintendent Stephen Barrett.
The district hired additional staff to address learning loss and Barrett explained extra attention will be paid to social-emotional learning.
“You can’t learn well unless you have a strong sense of well-being,” he said.
Gaps in academic growth and mental health are a common concern among educators.
“It’s been 18 months of a lot of disturbance, a lot of disruption,” said Dr. John Kellogg, the Superintendent for the Westerville City School District. “We’re going to start with ‘how are you doing?’ not ‘open your books.’”
District leaders have also come under scrutiny for mask policies in recent weeks. Passionate parents have voiced concerns in school board meetings and in front of district offices. Some have called for mask requirements for all students and staff, while others vehemently disagree and believe each family should decide whether or not to wear face coverings.
WCSD was one of the first Central Ohio school districts to announce a mask requirement for all students, teachers, and staff in all indoor spaces.
“We know it’s an inconvenience, none of us likes the mask, but we think it’s an important part to meet our goal of keeping our kids in school all year long — and safe and healthy,” Dr. Kellogg said.
GJPS is requiring masks for all pre-K through 8th-grade students and staff indoors. It’s optional and strongly recommended, for everyone in older grades.
“Masks are just a tool to reach our most important goal, which is to keep kids safe, but also to keep them in school for the next nine and a half months, five days a week, uninterrupted,” Barrett said.
On Thursday, many parents and students told NBC4 they are willing to wear a mask and abide by other policies in order to remain in in-person learning.
“That gives me some peace of mind that they’re trying to take extra precautions to keep the kids safe,” Ponder said.
“I don’t really like them, but I’ll do whatever it takes to be with my friends. So if I have to wear them, I have to wear them,” said Diana Humbert, a senior at Westerville North High School.
Kostandina Joshevska, the mother of 9th and 12th-grade students at Westerville North added, “I feel confident. We are fully vaccinated so I feel perfectly fine.”
Both GJPS and WCSD are closely monitoring local case numbers and following the guidance of health experts. The superintendents say their district policies may evolve along with transmission and vaccination rates.