By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – Walking into school the morning of Nov. 2 is an experience to say the least: staff and students don costumes for a belated Halloween celebration, and the faculty is holding a mock presidential election for the students.
But the most notable part of the day is how utterly different the experience of attending school is now from when I attended Lone Peak High School. This is school during a global pandemic.
I walk through the familiar front doors and sanitize my hands while my temperature is checked via a no contact camera system. Everyone in the building wears masks, though some have gotten creative and incorporated the masks into their costumes.
I sign in with the front office and get my trusty visitor’s badge. It is strange having to sign in as a guest to a building where I spent the better part of my formative years. I also miss LaDawn LeGrande who greeted me every morning and recently retired from her role as executive secretary this year.
The secondary school principal, Dr. Marlo Mitchem greets me and introduces me to my guide for the day, Avery Dickerson, a 10th-grader at LPHS.
She greets me excitedly and we start chatting about her classes, her interests and she asks me about my time at the school.
Dr. Mitchem explains that five or six kids occupy each classroom at once, while the rest tune in from home, adhering to the 50-50 hybrid education plan the school is following.
On the way down the hall, we follow arrows taped on the floor guiding the flow of traffic to maintain distancing. Walking down this hall was unsettling as I pass one particular blank stretch of wall that used to sport a collaborative painting my class created in first grade. Now, the walls feel empty, displaying a few class projects and literature promoting COVID-safe behaviors.
Avery brings me to her first class of the day, Spanish, with Señorita Marielle Walker, sporting two braids and a great galaxy mask. Señorita Walker teaches me how she runs the class: six students sit in desks six feet apart making up the “cohort” for today. The rest of the class attends via Zoom. Tomorrow, the groups will switch.
In the classroom, everyone wears masks and the students change rooms on a staggered schedule to minimize the amount of people in the hallways. At the end of first period, the students pack up, grabbing bottles of sanitizing solution and spraying down the desks and chairs. It took me a second to catch on and Avery was nice enough to sanitize my desk for me as I stood there watching others clean and marveling at the practiced efficiency. To sit alone at a table in class and sanitize with every room change seems to be the norm for students now, but it felt weird and regimented to me.
Avery’s next class is gym. She tells me wistfully that they can sometimes remove their masks in this class.
Gym class is a little different. The students can no longer go in the weight room together and all activities are tailored towards keeping the students distanced and outside when possible.
James Miranda, the health education teacher, had the students walk laps around the gym then up and down the bleacher steps. At one point, they step outside for some fresh air and get a chance to remove their masks for a short time.
Inside the gym the mock 2020 presidential election is taking place. Students file in one by one, pick one of the four booths set up, and cast their ballots. They are able to finish quickly since it is only the presidential candidates on their ballots, though some students made use of the write-in option. After casting their votes, students exited through the hallway adjacent to the gym and grab an “I voted” sticker on their way out.
Throughout the day, MS/HS Social Studies teacher Tony Coppola brings students in small groups to the gym where they sign in with Kim Dickerson, Avery’s mother, who volunteered to help run the mock election.
The rest of the school day flows in much the same way. I follow Avery to her English class and her Tech Design class where the same sanitizing and distancing procedures are being followed.
At lunchtime, students eat in their fourth period classrooms, unless the weather is warm enough to eat outside. No longer can students cram together at lunch tables in the cafeteria, sharing food and generally being boisterous. Now, they must remain at their own appropriately spaced desk or hope the weather allows them the opportunity for a slightly more communal lunchtime.
While the experience is strange, the students and staff seem to operate naturally under the new protocols. But to me the school doesn’t feel normal. And neither does it feel normal for the students who are now divided into small cohorts.
“I went from seeing everyone every day to hardly at all,” Avery tells me. But she adds that sports are a saving grace. She is a defender on the LPHS girls’ varsity soccer team and practice is now the best chance she has for some social time with friends.
“That’s what I like about sports,” she says. “I see my good friend at soccer even though I don’t see her in school.”
Avery’s family moved to Montana from Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2013 and then to Big Sky in 2016 when she was in sixth grade.
Avery’s mom Kim explains that they wanted to raise Avery and her brother Mason in a mountain town.
“It was the winters that brought us out here [along with] the endless possibilities,” Kim said.
School has required her to adapt this year, but Avery is making good use of the winters and is excited for the snow to fly. She’s a ski instructor at the Yellowstone Club and this year is aiming to get her Professional Ski Instructors of America level one certification. Next summer will be her third as a counselor at Camp Moonlight.
The 2020-21 school year has posed its fair share of challenges for students and educators alike. I admire the efforts of everyone in Big Sky School District #72 and the resilience they display in keeping the school open. Attending school right now is tough, I went for one day and was continually surprised by the differences and adjustments made by students and staff.
“I am very proud of our school community,” said Mitchem. “Everyone has adapted to the 50-50 hybrid learning model. Learning has been continuous, despite this challenging context. It is not always easy, but by working together, the community has remained focused on our school mission—to cultivate, engage, and empower our students.”