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Masks not a priority on Cleburne schools’ first day

Cleburne First Day of School BW 07.JPG

First day of school at Cleburne County elementary. 4th grade teacher Amber Cunningham. Photo by Bill Wilson

HEFLIN The doors of education swung open early Thursday morning at Cleburne County Elementary School as scores of kids either trotted off the buses or were let out in the car rider lane for the first day of school.

Lee Smith, the new principal at the elementary school and C. J. Boyd, the new principal at the middle school, were both outside to greet the year’s new students. The two principals were something like “new kids” themselves, for they are both serving in that post for the first time.

Smith, 57, is a veteran educator from Clay County having spent the last 14 years as a school administrator. Smith has also taught in both Georgia and Alabama. 

Smith’s experience was called into action as she consoled a student who was visibly upset about the first day of school as she carried him into the building.

“That’s part of teaching elementary school, I’ve done it before,” Smith said.

Smith then went back to opening car doors as eager kids — some wearing masks — scurried inside for the new year to begin.

Smith characterized her time at the elementary school so far as “awesome.”

 “It’s an amazing experience being here in Cleburne County,” she said.

Smith said the staff and faculty at the school have been amazing. 

 “They have been nothing but supportive, they do their job,” Smith said. 

The kids were all excited and smiling as they arrived, she said, noting, “I think the kids are the reason we all do what we do, so meeting them the first day is just a bonus.”

Currently there are no statewide or local mask mandates in Alabama, an absence that in one sense makes a teacher’s job easier, in the sense that a child communicates much through facial expressions that a mask might hide, according to Smith.

“When you put that mask on you take it away, being able to see them smile,” she said.

Nonetheless, for health reasons, “If a kid wants to wear a mask they can wear a mask, if a teacher wants to wear a mask they can wear a mask — so it’s not mandated right now but it is an option,” Smith said. 

Smith replaces Barbara Johnson, a longtime principal who retired earlier this year. One of Johnson’s crowning achievements was her work that got the school selected as a Exemplary High Performing National Blue Ribbon School for 2020, one of five schools in the state to receive the coveted distinction. 

Smith said Johson was an amazing administrator and wants to continue the standard of excellence the school has achieved.

“I have told them to keep doing what they were doing, she had a great plan in place. I got to work with her a couple of weeks before she left, she trained this staff to do what they needed to do,” said Smith.

“It’s hard to come in when something’s great and keep it great — it’s easier to go in when it’s bad and move it up,” she said. 

Smith said that she hopes this school year can fill in the missing gaps of last year due to the pandemic.

“We kinda lost a year last year, with the whole COVID thing, we’re excited to be back in school and give kids a chance to recoup that educational time and that’s what we plan to do this year — is fill in for missing school and keep doing what we’re doing,” said Smith. 

This year students will be back in school five days each week, unlike last year when COVID-19 protocols forced administrators to have virtual learning days during the school week.

Jeromy Owen, a third-grade teacher, said it was great to see his new students.

 “We’re very excited having the kids back today, they’re excited, some learning going on today, getting it started fresh today, no masks. No one’s wearing masks and that’s a big thing for us, we can see those pretty smiles when they come in in the morning,” Owen said. 

Owen said last year people were very nervous about the pandemic.

“They were very scared, even the teachers were, because we didn't know what to expect, but it seems like now that we’re trying to get back to normalcy — hopefully we can keep that going on this year,” he said.

In Amber Cunningham’s fourth-grade class the kids had begun their first assignment of the year, which was to tell how they spent their summer break. Kids were opening their school supplies and getting acquainted with their new surroundings.

Cunningham was wearing a mask along with two students in her class. 

“My husband is a type one diabetic, just trying to protect him and protect my family, just in case,” said Cunningham.

“We’re excited to be back and I’m hoping for the year to be a little more normal, it’s good to be back five days a week so hopefully we can be able to get more classroom instruction time in because we missed so much,” she said. 

Cunningham said last year everyone was nervous due to the pandemic. 

  “I actually had a student the very first day that had to go home and quarantine and so you just spent all year worrying if that was going to happen and if you had been exposed, it was definitely nerve-racking,” said Cunningham. 

At the middle school, Principal C. J. Boyd said his day so far had been “pure excitement” and his new job was like a dream that had come true. 

Boyd, 40, succeeded Todd Chandler who retired earlier this year to focus on his military career. Boyd considers Chandler a great friend and his mentor. 

“This is a special place and just seeing those kids this morning, the excitement on their face — man, I have a great staff, faculty, they’re just excited about our kids coming back,” said Boyd.  

In education for 12 years, Boyd had previously been a coach and taught for 10 years. Boyd said he was an assistant principal at Glencoe High School.

“I learned a lot under a great principal there by the name of Wendy Tinker, learned under her. And then this opportunity came about and I guess the Lord just put me where he wanted me, so this is where I am,” Boyd said. 

When Chandler retired in the spring he said he hoped his predecessor would continue the life skills room that was constructed for special needs kids. The room features a full-size kitchen and major appliances to teach kids domestic skills.

“We’re going to continue to do everything we can for that classroom,” said Boyd.

“We spent a lot of money, time and effort to get that for that special needs room and we want our kids to have as much as they can, every resource we can put in front of them that's what we want to be able to do,” said Boyd. 

Boyd said he did not see the uneasiness that was present last year due to the pandemic.

“I think we're just excited about our kids coming back to school, getting back to a normal way of life,” said Boyd.

“To me, if a child wants to wear a mask I encourage that, if they don’t want to wear a mask I encourage that, I think it’s a freedom of choice that’s the beautiful thing about where we live but right now, if they want to wear it for their safety by all means I encourage it,” Boyd said. 

​Staff writer Bill Wilson: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @bwilson_star.