COOKEVIILE, Tenn. (WTVF) — After a year of mandatory masks and frequent quarantines, Putnam County kicks off a new school year with less than one percent of students in virtual school Tuesday morning.
"I think the majority of students just learn better [in-person]," said Northeast Elementary School 4th grade teacher Laura Fleming, who is in her third decade of teaching.
In a district of nearly 12,000 students, only 200 are starting the year with the VITAL E-learning school online with Putnam County Schools teachers.
"I'm not going to say that all students, and it doesn't work for some families, but for the majority of students, I just feel they learn better in a structured environment with a teacher," explained Fleming. "So much of it is building those relationships that we can't build, if we're doing e-learning, and so it's just that one-on-one, person-to-person contact every day and those relationships that help a child learn."
During the 2020-2021 school year, Fleming said her students were "cocooned" in their classrooms in Putnam County.
"We weren't in the cafeteria, we didn't travel to encore classes, our specials, P.E., library, counseling, music, all came to us," she said. "We wore masks and you know that the kids, for the most part, it was just the new normal."
Fleming admitted she was scared at the start of the 2020-2021 school year, as her husband is a cancer survivor and is receiving chemo treatments. Fast forward a year, and she said she is feeling much more relaxed.
"I guess I could get into the school this year, over the summer, work in my classroom get it set up the way I wanted to and instead of dreading it, I'm just really excited and that feeling is throughout the county," explained Fleming. "We're just really excited to get in and to try to have a normal year this year."
For the start of the 2021-2022 school year, lunches in cafeterias are back, masks are optional and students are back to traveling for select classes.
"I'll be wearing my mask just to keep me safe so that I can keep my husband safe," said Fleming, "But, we show kindness and acceptance, and you do you if that makes your family feel better, then you do what you have to do for your family."
Teachers in Putnam County stressed they are paying attention beyond student's grades this year.
"We wanted to focus on their social emotional growth, as well as academic. So yes, we're going to grow your child, we're going to teach your child and cover all the standards, but, we're also going to take care of them socially and emotionally," explained Fleming.
She said she does daily check-ins and uses a hand-signal system on each student's desk to see how they are feeling.
"It's been a stressful year, but we are here to take care and to love your student, as well as grow them academically," said Fleming.