Throughout the summer, students and teachers alike talked about how much they missed seeing each other, seeing coworkers or classmates and generally just being back in school.
However, getting to fill the hallways and classrooms with chatter and in-person education has become a short experience for hundreds across the Limestone County Schools system. Protocols put in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have, as school officials expected, led to large groups of students being sent home for mandatory quarantine and parents getting little more than a warning that their child has possibly been exposed to the novel coronavirus.
For most, the quarantine is because a student self-reported symptoms that matched those of COVID-19 but had not tested positive for the disease, because a student was exposed outside of school to a positive case, or because a temperature-screening station revealed a student with a fever.
"Part of this you have anyway in a school," Superintendent Randy Shearouse said Wednesday. "You're going to have some people who have a fever normally, but we can't take that chance with this."
That's why, even if it's strep throat causing a fever or playing too hard at recess causing nausea, every sick student is treated as if they were positive. Furthermore, any other students that may have come in close contact with that student, whether it was on the bus that morning or in class that day, are also asked to quarantine.
In other words, one student being sent to school when they don't feel well can mean multiple classes being sent back home.
"When we send a kid home with a fever or headache and that stuff, we have to send home the kids that had close contact with that student until we know if the student has COVID or not," said Elayne Perkins, head nurse for LCS.
At a large school like East Limestone High, where students travel from class to class throughout the day, the number of students being sent home adds up quickly. Perkins said in the first four days of the school year, 160 East students had been asked to quarantine just in case, but only eight were sent home with symptoms and no one had tested positive for COVID-19.
LCS has been following the health guidelines provided by the state to ensure best practices are used, and Perkins strongly encouraged parents to help by checking students before they go to school.
"Kids that are coming in sick are saying they didn't feel good at home or they had a temperature," she said. "We need parents' help."
She said as students get older, it can be harder because they're much more independent, but she added that kids who are showing up to school with symptoms are admitting they felt sick at home or were running a temperature the night before.
That's not to say every parent is missing symptoms, every child is coming to school despite being sick or exposure is high in every school. In fact, several schools are reporting very low numbers, and schools that do report a large group one day may have nothing to report the next.
"We knew it was going to happen like this," Shearouse said. "... It's going to be fluid, day by day, as we deal with this situation."
Students that are sent home are asked to quarantine until they receive clearance from a doctor or the school for them to return to campus. In some cases, the school nurse could call the same day that the student is sent home to say they're cleared to return the next day.
But, that's not always the case. It's just another level of uncertainty in a time already filled with it.
"It could be 10 to 14 days, or it could be tomorrow," Perkins said. "If the (sick) child has something other than COVID, then we can bring the kids back tomorrow."
Meanwhile, students that are quarantining at home must keep up with their school work virtually. Shearouse said plans are in place to allow students to continue instruction with their teacher so they don't fall behind, and not being physically in class due to a mandatory quarantine does not automatically count as an absence for the student.
"I just ask for patience and appreciate everyone working with us," Shearouse said. "I think our students and teachers are doing a phenomenal job with masks and social distancing."
The district has also received funding from the state, courtesy of the CARES Act, to hire additional health care personnel and provide even more support at schools. Perkins said despite the stress and how hectic the first full week has been, they're an experienced group that works hard.
"They are trained nurses that have worked everything from emergency rooms and nursing homes to ICUs," she said. "They're a great group, and I'm proud of them. They're doing a great job in uncertain times."
She also praised school administrators.
"The administration in this school system has worked hard," Perkins said. "Nothing is going to be perfect, but they've worked hard for the safety of the kids."