story and photos by Doug McClure
HARDWICK – It was a sweltering ninety degrees out last Thursday when Hazen Union held its open house for students new to the school. It almost felt like it did two years ago, before COVID disrupted the school’s routines and turned things upside down.
Everyone wore masks, as the school requires, but other than that the usual features of orientation for new students were the same: Epic battles with locker combinations, parents asking teachers questions that embarrass their kids, entire families lost in the maze of hallways trying to find classrooms.
Aasha Gould was drafted to wear a Wildcat costume for the event, and Principal Jason Di Giulio asked students to wear the school colors of red and blue on Monday.
It almost just felt normal. That was a word lots of people used: normal.
By any metric, it could be said that this orientation was a very big deal. As Di Giulio put it, “we get to be together. This is the first time [in], what, almost two years, eighteen months, where we actually get to be a community. This is the first time the community has been allowed in our building since March of 2020.” Calling it “incredible,” he said the school has done its part to make things safe.
Last year, Hazen Union did not feel very much like Hazen Union. The hallways were one-way, there was heavy evidence of the steps taken to thwart COVID from entering the building, and there was plastic everywhere. The signs are down, the hallways are back to normal, and the ventilation system upgrades are done, Di Giulio said. No tents are set up outside for classes, though teachers have the option of taking students outside.
Di Giulio said that “knowing what we faced last year, and how we made it through the entire year without confirmed in-school spread, that says our protocols worked. And now there’s vaccines and our protocols work. We’re in a very different place. It’s a place of concern, but not a place of fear.”
Di Giulio is careful to point out that he hopes the community understands keeping things this close to pre-pandemic normal is a team sport.
“I trust our community to understand our role in the community, and they understand, I hope, the relationship between them and us in terms of staying open.”
Teacher Kay Freedy said, “It’s interesting to be back to pre-COVID ways, and at the same time, still in the middle of a pandemic. That’s different. I think that brings some different energy. I think people are more appreciative of being able to come to school than they had been. I’m excited to be back.”
Middle school science teacher Arne Hagman said, he was “not overly worried, but still a little bit nervous” to be back, but “overall, it’s a very positive year.” He said he was “really excited” to work with Di Giulio. Hagman said he was looking forward to “getting back into the swing of things. I want to get back into the normal, that is what I really want.”
One of the students brand new to Hazen Union is also brand new to the country. Fourteen-year-old Nikau Tei is from New Zealand. It was clear that Di Giulio had done his homework on that country’s education system, because while Tei was a ninth-grader there, the curricula don’t completely align. Di Giulio gave Tei and his mom a tour while trying to gauge whether a class might be below his abilities or fit them. Tei will likely end up with classes from a mix of grade levels, and Di Giulio told him not to worry, that the school will adapt to what works for him.
One big change for Tei is having a cafeteria. His mother said that in New Zealand, he just brings his lunch, so this will be a new experience. He seemed less concerned about that, but she wanted to make sure other kids would help him navigate the new experience. While she took notes and asked a lot of questions of Di Giulio, Tei said he wasn’t really freaked out by the prospect of a new year in a new school in a new country. He was here for an art-related class for a few weeks last year. As for the adjustment he said, “it wasn’t too hard. The only hard thing was leaving friends and family.”
Jaimey Farrand, fourteen, is an incoming freshman and his sister, Lotus, “about to be thirteen,” will be in the eighth grade. She was the quieter of the two. Jaime is looking forward to “a little bit of sports” and is interested in track.
None of the students said anything about COVID and complained about masks, either. What Di Giulio said more than once is that the school is only part of the equation to keeping the school open and things normal. The community needs to do its part, which is what most of the students seemed to want: a normal school year. Di Giulio hopes the community will do its part to give the children what they deserve after nearly two years of disruption.