UPDATE, Jan. 6: Adds comments from a kindergartner, her mom and school principal.
Seeing your teacher, meeting your classmates, getting used to having your own desk and cubby – these are the exciting (and perhaps terrifying) rites of passage for kindergartners that normally happen in September. On Mercer Island, these rites of passage are instead happening now. The coronavirus pandemic is to blame for the delay.
About 150 students who have been learning remotely since the start of the school year headed to school buildings for the first time on Wednesday. Before the kids arrived at Lakeridge Elementary School, principal Heidi Christensen bustled around tying helium balloons to the railings.
"We’re excited to have those little guys coming," she said.
Did she wake up with jitters in her stomach?
"Well, I’ve been here since 4:45 this morning. But good jitters, really good jitters," she said. "All these months of planning, we are ready."
Ready to welcome students like Lana Meunsaveng, who showed up wearing pink boots and a favorite sweater with a unicorn on it.
"I’m very excited about it because it’s my first day of school," she said.
Her mom Timas said the whole family has been waiting for Lana to have this milestone.
"With all the pandemic, I totally understand the circumstances, but I do want her to be first year with everybody, but unfortunately, it didn’t happen last September," she said.
Getting to this point has taken months of preparation by educators and school district leaders.
Similar planning is underway in Bellevue, Tacoma and other school districts in the Puget Sound region that aim to start in-person learning for the youngest students, especially now that Gov. Jay Inslee released updated guidance last month to encourage more face-to-face instruction.
About 15 to 20 percent of the Mercer Island School District’s kindergartners will continue to do remote learning because their families opted for that model. But the rest will come to school every morning, wearing face masks and after their parents or caregivers fill out a health questionnaire through a mobile app.
Superintendent Donna Colosky said the district adjusted staffing in the summer in order to make sure class sizes for young children would be on the small side, about 15 students.
Students and staff will have to wear face masks and probably a warm sweater. Colosky said the buildings will be chilly. Making sure school buildings are properly ventilated has been a major focus for districts as they work to minimize any possible transmission of the virus.
“We’re able to get about a consistent 66-degree temperature. Because we’re pumping the outside air in so often, it’s difficult for our older boilers to heat the air,” she said.
Another change from a normal school year – students will go home before lunch. Grab-and-go meals will be available for children to take home. Colosky said that way the district avoids having the kids spend a lot of time without their masks on while they eat. There will be a snack time, but she said students will be encouraged to eat that quickly. And the district has posted graphics in schools to remind students to practice physical distancing.
“Lining up to come into the classroom, they’ve got little dots to stand on, or spaces in the hallways that are showing them two golden retrievers is about six feet,” she said. That kind of reminder will “show them that those mitigation strategies are what’s going to keep us all safe.”
Colosky said after students get home, they’ll have another video-conference class with their teachers and then time to do specialized classwork, including art and physical education.
The district has been providing in-person instruction since September to about 65 students who receive special-education services, Colosky said. There have been coronavirus cases, mostly among staff, but she said the cases stemmed from community transmission, not from a school-based outbreak. Colosky said the district plans to post a chart on its website with coronavirus case information.
The Mercer Island district plans to bring first-graders back to school buildings on Jan. 19. After that, the district aims to offer a hybrid of in-person and remote learning for second grade through high school, but Colosky said they have not set a date for that yet.