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Thousands of masked Indianapolis Public School students head back to school

A parent walks pushing a stroller walks up a school ramp with two of her first graders and an older student wearing a backpack.
IPS Parent Ciera Cole walks her children up the ramp of Clarence Farrington School 61 on the first day of school for Indianapolis Public School students on Monday, Aug. 2.
Aaricka Washington / Chalkbeat

When twins Ryan and Rylan wandered into their first grade class Monday at Clarence Farrington School 61, they sat at the first two desks they saw, front and center. They were ready for the day.

“That’s not y’all desks. Hold on,” their mom Ciera Cole said to the twins, who wore matching red shirts and navy blue shorts with neon green Nikes. “Get up, get up. That’s someone else’s desk. You have to look for your name.”

Ryan and Rylan were among thousands of masked Indianapolis Public Schools students walking through school doors on Monday, a year and a half into the pandemic. Throughout the nation, school districts are facing tough questions. How do they get students caught up to where they need to be after a long disruption to in-person school? How can teachers revive their students’ interests? Will schools remain open as the delta variant pushes up COVID-19 case numbers?

Ryan and Rylan Cole sit in the back of their mother Ciera Cole’s car as she drives them and her sixth-grade daughter to Clarence Farrington School 61 on the first day of school.
Aaricka Washington / Chalkbeat

Cole said she’s really nervous about how this school year will go for them.

They didn’t attend kindergarten because of the pandemic and struggles with virtual learning.

At school, the twins followed their big sister, sixth-grader Ra’Zya, as they walked to the breakfast line. They tried holding onto milk, orange juice, Golden Graham boxes, and yogurt all in their hands as they walked to class. Sometimes they dropped their plasticware.

A woman in a white shirt stands next to a desk and unwraps plastic utensils while a child in a red shirt with a backpack on his back waits to each his yogurt and a plastic bowl of cereal. A amal milk carton also sits on the desk.
IPS Parent Ciera Cole helps her son Ryan with his breakfast on his first day ever of in-person learning, Monday, Aug. 2.
Aaricka Washington / Chalkbeat

With Ryan, Rylan, and Ra’Zya all safely delivered to Indianapolis Public Schools campuses, Cole said she felt relieved but still scared. She said the twins are on the autism spectrum and are still being diagnosed. The district will provide special services for them for developmental delays, while she waits on a diagnosis.

She worries that people don’t know them or their situation. “You could see how the other kids were talking,” she said. “They (adults) knew what they were talking about.”

But Cole has seen teachers at the school help students when they need help learning how to navigate school for the first time.

“That’s why I got to trust the process,” she said.

The last year and a half has been rough for Cole and her family. She left her job as a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home because so many people were getting sick and dying of COVID-19.

“I didn’t want to give it to my twins because they are going through a lot with their brains and I didn’t know how their bodies would take it,” Cole said.

After she left, she got another job that she liked, and soon got pregnant. She took a leave of absence and received unemployment benefits, which suddenly stopped. She and her husband haven’t been able to get new back-to-school clothes for her five school-age children and have had to rely on churches and other organizations for help.

Her two older boys, Crispus Attucks sophomores Ricky and Elijah, had to get up around 5:30 a.m. to catch the 6:28 a.m. bus, which was running late. They sat in the car quietly as the sun rose. Cole said her boys hated virtual learning last year and struggled through it. They made Ds and Fs during that time.

“It’s been hard because I haven’t been able to do stuff that I usually am able to do in school, especially since it was my first year of high school.” said Ricky, who wants to play basketball, football, and baseball this year. Going back to campus midyear made it easier, he said. “I’m going to be more determined in my school work because last year I had to do summer school.”

Cole thinks that they will be happy going back to school. Throughout the pandemic, they haven’t been able to travel out of town. The pandemic also affected their social life, especially as they changed schools and moved among virtual, hybrid, and in-person instruction.

“It made me quieter and it made me see things differently, but I’ve always been the observant type, like watching people and reading the room,” Ricky said.

The high school bus finally came. As it pulled up to the stop, Cole told the boys that she loved them. They said it back.

Cole’s 11-year-old sixth grader worries her the least. Ra’Zya got good grades last year. On Monday, she was up early.

“My daughter is excited,” Ciera said. “She’s trying to act like she’s not excited but she’s up early.”

She’s worried about the twins and their behavior. She hopes they can adapt and learn quickly.

“I think the twins are over-excited because they have never experienced anything like this and they really don’t go anywhere,” Cole said. “They never go to bed when I tell them to go to bed and they went to bed last night.”

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