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HUNTINGTON — Cabell County students returned to school Tuesday after a summer of uncertainty, many of whom headed back to the classroom for the first time since March, while others began adjusting to the “new normal” of virtual learning.

Although neighboring counties Putnam and Wayne were unable to return to face-to-face classes Tuesday after moving into the “orange” category in the state’s color-coded COVID-19 system, Cabell remained “yellow” Saturday evening, meaning students were able to start the year in person.

“We have missed our students tremendously,” Gina Barnett, assistant principal at Huntington East Middle School, said Tuesday. “Just to have that normalcy back within our lives, it’s important. If we can do it from 6 feet apart, then let’s do it at 6 feet apart.”

Barnett said HEMS, like others in the county, has implemented safety procedures like installing hand-sanitizer stations throughout the building, dividing hallways in half to alleviate traffic and practicing social distancing.

With the blended schedule in place and some students choosing a full-time virtual option, Barnett said each classroom saw six to 11 kids at a time, with about 250 students in the school total.

“It’s definitely really going well so far,” J.R. Ash, an eighth-grade student at HEMS, said Tuesday. “Right now, we are just kind of getting all the information on how we can stay safe at school and still learn, still get a good learning process. It’s been going really well, and it’s been nice to see all the teachers and all my fellow peers and administrators.”

Ash said it was a relief to finally be back in the classroom, and the precautions he saw upon arrival Tuesday morning eased anxieties about the virus.

“I think with all the safety measures in place, like the hand sanitizer, the social distancing stickers, I definitely think it’s as safe as it can be for this time,” Ash said. “We haven’t really been around anyone for the last couple of months so it was nice to kind of have some interaction, and I’m definitely excited to interact for the semester.”

At the Cabell County Career Technology Center, Principal Frank Barnett said the first day of school was pleasantly uneventful.

“It seems like we’ve had plenty of room in the meal areas, social distancing, and once we explained to students the traffic patterns and expectations, we’ve had no incidents or anything negative,” he said. “It’s all been fine. They’ve all maintained their distance and worn their masks.”

Across the county, Superintendent Ryan Saxe said about 80% of students chose the face-to-face option, and from that about half were in classrooms Tuesday.

“We were able to reinforce the practices and protocols for students so that we can keep everybody safe, so it really did go well,” Saxe said. “The anticipation of the first day of school is always exciting, but I think this year there was a different feel to that excitement — it was optimistic excitement.”

For students who started virtually, Saxe said the biggest issues families faced were frustrations getting acclimated to the online programs.

“One of the areas, as we reflect upon the day, that we know we need to improve is the technical support for our families at home,” Saxe said. “Once they get established with their virtual school teacher, then that teacher can really support the learning of the child, but if there are technical difficulties of them logging in, getting into their email, opening these brand-new devices, that’s one area we can improve.”

The district is developing a plan to open a hotline for families to call who need quick technical support for the first few weeks of school.

Other schools in Cabell County also reopened for the school year, including Our Lady of Fatima Parish School, St. Joseph Catholic School and Covenant School in Huntington.

The schools are required to follow the state color-code guidelines and opted for a five-day traditional model for their students with necessary precautions.

The West Virginia Department of Education’s color-code map will be updated again Saturday, Sept. 12, and will determine if students in Cabell County will be able to continue classes on a blended schedule or if they will be forced to a remote learning model.

Follow reporter Hanna Pennington via Twitter @hpennHD.

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