LOWELL — Reopening school doors is a Herculean challenge these days.
Temperature checks. Hand sanitizer stations. Ventilation upgrades. Social distancing signs. Mandatory mask checks.
After checking off all the safety boxes, the Lowell Middlesex Academy Charter School reopened to students Feb. 22. It was a ton of work, but administrators, teachers and students say it was well worth the hurdles to allow students to return for in-person learning.
“This school has changed my life,” said 17-year-old Lowell resident Victoria Martins. “It’s made me a better person. It’s made me have more confidence in myself. I like coming in person.”
For now, the students appear at the Middle Street school on Mondays and Tuesdays.
The Lowell Middlesex Academy Charter School is a public high school that targets at-risk students who have dropped out of high school or are at risk to do so. Lowell students are given first priority as required by the school’s charter, but students ages 15-21 from Billerica, Chelmsford, Dracut, Tyngsboro, Westford, Lawrence and Methuen have also attended.
The school can accommodate up to 150 students. Instead of having approximately 100 students on hand, only about one-third of that are currently enrolled. Some students feel anxious about attending due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In some instances, it’s the parents or guardians who are apprehensive.
“We’re a school of second chances,” said Marge McDevitt, the executive director. “It’s really the smaller size that’s attractive to students. We focus on … the social success of all the students.”
It’s the 25th anniversary of the school. The school features seven teachers and a full-time nurse, Amy Hendl.
COVID-19 pool testing is performed each Monday by Hendl.
“It is terrific to see the students in here, even if it’s for two days a week,” Hendl said.
There were no positive tests the first two weeks after the school reopened, though a nasal swab is not mandatory for the students. But safety is paramount.
Students are given a temperature check and asked to answer a variety of health questions upon arriving on the first floor. They began their school day on the second floor. Academics are from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Students are given a boxed lunch on their way out and undergo online studies when they arrive home.
McDevitt salutes her teachers for their ability to connect with students online via computer on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. But everyone agrees that there is no substitute for in-person learning
The school was closed to in-person learning from last March through June and no graduation ceremony was held for the class of 2020. Students returned in September, but the school was again closed in November when positive coronavirus rates spiked in the Merrimack Valley.
When students returned Feb. 22, smiles were everywhere. Martins couldn’t wait to see her teachers face to face. She’s been accepted to Middlesex Community College in the fall and hopes to become a pediatrician.
“They’ve been very nice and very helpful,” she said. “I felt happier.”
“I think the students were happy to be back,” McDevitt said, “and the teachers were so happy to see them. Hopefully we can spread the word that the students are safe and they are comfortable. That’s why our school exists, to take care of students who have fallen through the cracks.”
All students are eligible to take Middlesex Community College classes to receive college credit.
School administrators hope to stage a graduation after the trimester ends June 12. In a perfect world, the multicultural school will be open all five days beginning in September. For now, 30 air purifiers are stationed throughout the building, circulating air in a safe manner.
Junior Thomas Cowgill began attending the school last November. A history buff who hopes to join the military after graduation, Cowgill calls the teachers “awesome” and credits his newfound school happiness with giving him more energy.
“I like it here. It’s very comfortable,” the Dracut resident said.
Cowgill was told about the school by two cousins. He said he’s glad he listened to them.
“The students have been so agreeable about all the extra precautions we have,” said Anne Monoxelos, the assistant director.
McDevitt credits teacher Ken Bello with getting the school up to safe standards for students. Bello did an extensive ventilation analysis and has also built plexiglass stations, among his many duties.
During an interview with a reporter, McDevitt stops a couple of times to warmly greet students walking by. She holds a couple of extra masks wrapped in plastic. But she never has to pass them out. The students know the drill.
“It has been stressful,” McDevitt said of prepping the building for the return of students, “it’s been a lot of work. (But) it’s not school if you don’t have students.”