Traditions, with a twist, for returning students required to mask

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch

Alexis Morrow's second-grade class started the school year with a long-running tradition, all centered around a cardboard box wrapped in caution tape. 

Morrow revealed the box about one hour into Valley View Elementary School's first day of school. She set the box in the middle of her classroom, as her students leaned forward from their desks and made predictions about what was inside. 

Upon opening the box, the class discovered a white lab coat, a beaker, plastic cups, straws and dozens of Sprite cans and fruit punch juice boxes. All necessary ingredients to make "Jitter Juice," a special concoction meant to ease first-day nerves. 

As she passed out the supplies, Morrow kept the beaker with her and donned the lab coat. The exercise was designed to resemble a science experiment — complete with a little lab coat for each of Morrow's students tucked away in drawers by their desks.

"What, you didn't bring your own lab coats to the first day of school?" Morrow asked them.

Students Philip Oestereich, 7, left, Lillian Verrastro, 7, right, and Justice Lanson, 7, second from right, look on as second grade teacher Alexis Morrow distributes the ingredients to make "Jitter Juice" during the first day of class at Valley View Elementary School in Spring Garden Township, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

After mixing the fruit punch and Sprite together in their plastic cups and reciting a poem about "Jitter Juice," the students finally got to enjoy their drinks. Several said they did feel better after drinking it. 

Morrow has made "Jitter Juice" with her class on their first day of school for about 10 years, and the traditional has undergone several evolutions. The lab coats were a recent addition the school purchased through a grant, and the ingredients of "Jitter Juice" change regularly, depending on what Morrow finds at the store. 

This year, the tradition yet again looked different from previous years. "Jitter Juice" was enjoyed by a full classroom, with each of Morrow's students wearing masks. Some attempted to drink the juice without removing their masks, with moderate success. 

Hundreds of students across York County returned to school this week. The first day marked a return to normal for most schools. Valley View Elementary, with the York Suburban School District, was one of the few schools in the county to start the year with a mask mandate. 

More:What York Co. parents can expect as schools reopen this week

Mask mandates remain a hot topic of debate across the country. When York Suburban's school board voted to reinstate its mask mandate for elementary and middle schools, nearly a dozen parents spoke out against the decision during the meeting. 

More:York County school district reinstates mask mandate for upcoming year

But the controversy was not present inside the school. No student took issue with wearing their mask. While several allowed their mask to drop below their nose or forgot to put their mask back on after eating or drinking, most of them eventually corrected it themselves. Rarely did a teacher have to remind a student to wear their mask properly. 

The only time York Suburban's mask mandate was directly addressed was during recess when a teacher reminded students they did not have to wear their masks outside  and during PE, where masking was still enforced. 

Katherine Lewis, 7, throws a ball during a game of Coconuts in gym class during the first day of second grade at Valley View Elementary School in Spring Garden Township, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"We're going to wear them, because we want to appreciate each other," PE teacher Annie Childs told her students. 

Students were allowed to take mask breaks without Childs' permission. The only requirement for mask breaks was that a student could not be near any other person while taking one, she said.

York Suburban, and most other local school districts, said they would encourage physical distancing as much as possible. But distancing was relatively nonexistent at Valley View. Students interacted closely in the classroom, hallways, the cafeteria and at recess. Beyond the masks covering every face, the first day resembled a mostly normal school day. 

"We're just trying to pretend that last year never happened," second-grade teacher Kellie Aughenbaugh said. 

The start of the previous school year looked dramatically different for Valley View. For most of the year, York Suburban students followed a hybrid schedule that had them in the classroom two days of the week. In the spring, York Suburban shifted its schedule to four days of in-person learning, and later expanded it to five days. 

"Those shifts really rocked our world," said Valley View Principal Todd Monos.

Recess was limited for students last year as well, with students delegated to specific zones of the playground they couldn't venture out of. Students were especially excited that every area of the playground was open this year. 

The cafeteria also expanded into the gym last year to allow more physical distancing, with each table holding about two students each. This year, students could sit side-by-side but were only allowed on one side of the table. As one lunch period ended, staff wiped down the tables, and the incoming students took seats on the side that was not occupied by the earlier group. 

For Valley View's second-grade teachers, the first day of school isn't meant for diving into the curriculum. Their goal was to get their students comfortable with them and their classmates, and each teacher had their own strategy. For Morrow, it was the "Jitter Juice." Aughenbaugh's students had coloring pages, and Cheryl Johnson's second-grade class did a Play-Doh exercise. 

Second grade teacher Cheryl Johnson, right, works with student Treize Contreras, 7, as he works with his new planner during the first day of class at Valley View Elementary School in Spring Garden Township, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The strategies seemed to work. At the start of the day, Johnson's classroom was extremely quiet, but by the end of it, her students were actively engaging with her and with each other. 

At the end of the day, students trickled out of the building based on their mode of transportation. In Morrow's classroom, she said goodbye to her students with a phrase she didn't get to say often last year. 

"I'll see you tomorrow," Morrow said. 

Like what you're reading? Consider subscribing to The York Dispatch to support local journalism.