As the Seattle school district delays the date for bringing preschoolers and some students with disabilities back to classrooms to the end of this month, 40 miles to the south in Pierce County, seventh- and eighth-graders at Keithley Middle School in Parkland headed back to campus this week. They returned to classrooms for the first time in almost a year, following the return of sixth-graders last week.
But COVID-era school looks a lot different than before the pandemic began – starting with a new procedure every morning when kids arrive.
The very first stop for middle schoolers back on campus is a check-in to make sure they don’t have any COVID symptoms. At a little after 7 o’clock, students lined up in the lunchroom, looking a little sleepy in their hoodies and assortment of face masks. One wore an LA Lakers mask; another had one decorated with rainbow sequins.
Assistant Principal Rosita Castellano greeted them with a cheery, “Wooo! Good morning!”
A parent or guardian is supposed to have filled out an online questionnaire before the student comes to school. But some of the kids arrived without one filled out. So Melanie Jones, the after-school program director, had them fill out a paper form and took their temperature.
“97.3. You put 97.3 on your paper,” she told one boy.
Getting to this point of having students at school in person is the culmination of a lot of effort. And there’s been a lot of stress behind the scenes. As much as educators want to teach in person, they’re also worried about catching the virus.
But Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement last week that educators were immediately eligible for coronavirus vaccines has helped ease some fears. Jones has gotten one round of the vaccine and said she’s glad to welcome the students back.
“I’m loving it. It’s giving me kind of a renewed energy,” she said. “I feel as though as long as we’re all safe, and I have underlying health issues, but I feel really good about this. I didn’t feel hesitant about coming back at all. I love seeing the faces, and I know it’s good for them and us, mentally and emotionally more than anything.”
Not all educators feel as comfortable as Jones.
“Ultimately I have some mixed emotions and some anxieties,” said T. Jay Johnson, a computer science teacher.
As a Black man with asthma, he worries about catching the virus because it has taken such a toll on people of color. Black people in Washington state have made up 6 percent of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, even though they represent 4 percent of the population. Black people represent 3 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the state.
Johnson considered taking unpaid leave. Another staff member at Keithley is doing that.
“But I just can’t afford it,” he said. “In our household, we just don’t have that option.”
Johnson said he’s less anxious now that he got the first round of the vaccine, but he still worries about his students getting infected and taking it back to their families. Nevertheless, he says it’s been good to reunite with students he hadn’t seen for so long.
“Sixth-graders that I met for the first time last year are now getting taller and growing mustaches and things of that nature, so that’s exciting,” he said. “Those interactions are really great and really positive and make it a little easier to get through the day, but I still worry about their families.”
These are the kinds of considerations that have made returning to in-person school so difficult.
But the kids have been waiting for this moment for a long time.
In room 310, seventh-grade social studies teacher Ryan Davenport broke the ice with a game. One kid tried to guess the word on a sticky note attached to her forehead. The rest of the class could see it and shouted out clues.
“You turn it up and down!” one student said.
“A certain type of sound in the class!” another said.
“A radio?” she guessed.
She eventually guessed the word: volume.
These are students who have been in the same virtual class all school year, but they’re just now seeing each others’ faces because most didn’t turn on their cameras during remote learning.
Twelve-year-old Lillie said her parents did not hesitate to send her back to in-person school.
“They weren’t worried. I didn’t have to convince them,” she said. “My mom told me if I wanted to go back to school, I could go back to school because I can learn easier when I’m being social.”
And it’s clear from talking to Lillie that remote school has posed a lot of challenges for families. She often had to take care of her younger siblings and help her sister do her online classes.
“We share a room. I have a bed right here, she has a bed right there,” she said. “We would sit on it and do school together. Like, I would help her if she had a question, 'Leilani, that plus that equals that,’ ” she said.
So Lillie is happy to be back at Keithley. But school feels pretty different.
We asked her what the strangest thing about school is so far.
“That we have to wear a mask every day. You can only see half of people’s faces,” she said. “Say if COVID is over and you come back to school and you don’t even recognize your friends because they were always wearing a mask.”
Not just that. Students are divided into cohorts and come to campus only twice a week. The rest of the time they do remote school. That means the number of students in a class in person is very small – five or six students. Classrooms feel pretty empty with desks spread out six feet apart and with fewer kids.
About one third of the school's roughly 850 students have opted to do 100 percent remote learning, Principal Tom Edwards said.
Another big change is lunchtime.
At almost 11 o’clock, a voice came over the loudspeaker.
“We want to remind all classes: As you go to lunch, last name A-D, come into the commons through the band room entrance door.”
In the lunchroom, kids sit at assigned seats, six feet apart from each other. The district has such a high percentage of students who qualify for subsidized meals that all students are allowed to eat for free.
After 15 minutes, kids are sent outside for activities, and the other group of students comes inside. School leaders have organized everything from bocce ball to cornhole to basketball, keeping groups small and students as far apart as possible.
Students wearing masks on the four-square court played a fast game, laughing and getting out their energy. It’s the kind of vibrant social time students have lacked – at least at school – for a long time.
Back at Ryan Davenport’s classroom, he got ready for another class of students by spritzing the desks with a cleaning solution and then handing paper towels to the students as they walked in. The kids are supposed to wipe the desks down.
“Hello, welcome, remind me of your name?” he said.
“Sam,” a student answered.
“Oh, hi Sam, welcome,” Davenport answered.
Being this far into the school year and only now getting to see his students’ faces is tough for Davenport. He’s the kind of teacher who really wants to get to know his students and normally goes to their dance recitals and wrestling matches.
He is also concerned about where they stand academically. For example, he doesn’t know how well students can read out loud – something Keithley Middle School normally puts a lot of emphasis on.
“How do you get kids to catch up when more time isn’t added? Time just ticks away,” he said.
So there are plenty of challenges ahead. Later this week, Davenport and other teachers will have to start teaching simultaneously to kids on Zoom and students in person, and he is not sure how to make that work. Long term, he wonders what the impact of these school disruptions will mean for his students.
“I think what’s going to happen is we’re going to see this play out over the next five or six years,” he said. “We’re going to keep seeing the 'What do we do now?' thing for the COVID generation of students for a little while now because it’s going to create some gaps that we’re not going to have easy solutions for.”
For now though, Davenport is doing what he can to build relationships with the students he’s had since September and is now finally meeting face to face in March.