NEWBURYPORT — With modified classrooms both indoors and outdoors, and a whole new set of health and safety guidelines, River Valley Charter School welcomed back most of its 288 students for the new school year on Tuesday.

Each grade level's plan looks a little bit different, depending on the amount of students and the space available.

Students in grades K-6 are attending school in-person full-time, but those in K-3 only attend for half days. For grades 4-6, students are divided into two "cohorts," with one group working outdoors and offsite, while another group works in the classrooms. Both cohorts will alternate between indoors and outdoors each week.

The offsite locations, which include a community garden, an historical site, a tree farm and a space by the salt marsh, were made possible through partnerships with a few local organizations, according to school director Jonnie Lyn Evans.

The idea to use both indoor and outdoor spaces has "so far, gotten a lot of positive feedback," she said, adding that the staff tried be as innovative as possible. 

When asked how that setup might change depending on the weather, Evans recalled an old saying that "there's no bad weather, just inadequate clothing." She said the school is working to ensure all students are dressed for the weather that day, but there is also some form of shelter at each offsite location, if needed. 

For grades 7 and 8, students are engaging in a hybrid model, attending school in-person for three days a week and working remotely on Google Classroom and Seesaw Learning the other two days. 

Evans said a lot of effort went into making in-person instruction possible. A reentry team worked within the schools for about two to three hours every week this summer and researched different classroom modifications that could be implemented. She said this group worked together to create "a blueprint for our return." 

As a result of these efforts, all class sizes were reduced to 10-12 people to adequately space everyone out, she said. Other resources include the use of yoga mats for students to keep to their own space when working on the floor. Evans said fabric mats are common for Montessori schools, but yoga mats are easier to wipe down after each use.

Many classrooms are also having students use five-gallon paint buckets instead of backpacks to carry their supplies around throughout the day. Evans said the bucket can be set down or flipped over and used as a seat, if the classroom needs to move outside.

Though in-person instruction was maximized in the main plan, families were also given the option to select a fully remote learning model, if preferred, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"From my perspective, the silver lining in this whole situation — if there could be one — is this opportunity to really dive deep into our outdoor learning program and to gain more skill with online platforms," Evans said. "Those are two things that were aspirational for us, but this has really given us an opportunity to focus on them."

Evans added that any plan is "dependent on everyone doing what's right."

River Valley Charter can only remain open if everyone does their part to wear masks, socially distance and otherwise respect the guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she said.

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