A year after its abrupt closure, Peninsula School District schools are now open to all students who want to attend in-person classes. Peninsula, Gig Harbor and Henderson Bay high schools, the last to open, welcomed students in mid-March.
Health guidelines require physical distancing, masks and health attestations, but the district has been working with those requirements since it opened its doors to high-needs students at the beginning of the school year. Kindergartners and first-graders returned Sept. 28; second-graders Jan. 19; third-, fourth- and fifth-graders Feb. 4; and middle school students Feb. 25.
PSD Superintendent Art Jarvis called the effort a labor of love. PHS Principal Joe Potts said the counselors deserved gold medals for their work in creating a master schedule. Staff has worked on the logistics of welcoming students into the building, passing in hallways, and how to manage lunch time, learning from the experience of the grades that returned before them. “We want desperately to have our students back,” Potts said. “We want to open safely and smoothly. We’ve measured everything and we have measured it twice.”
As with the middle schools, high schools will use a hybrid program, with students spending about half their time in-person and half with virtual learning. Students have been divided into two cohorts by last name, with half attending Monday and Thursday, half attending Tuesday and Friday, and all attending via Zoom on Wednesday.
Because the reopening took place about a month into the second semester, staff built a schedule that took into account the teachers and students who planned to remain virtual through the rest of the year; they continued with the same classes and those returning to in-person classes continued with the same teachers but using the hybrid schedule.
Kara Beloate teaches English, theater, and dance at PHS. “I am ready, but there will be things that come up that we will have to roll with. But what overrides that is my excitement to be here with the kids, that relationship, meeting them for the first time live. I have never even seen some of their faces,” she said.
Joel Epstein, who teaches precalculus, said it can be difficult to assess how well students understand when using Zoom and he is looking forward to seeing them in person.
Beloate and Epstein will teach both in-person and virtual classes to accommodate PHS students who have chosen to stay virtual. Beloate will teach drama production as a combined virtual and in-person class.
PHS special education teachers Wendy Christiansen and Joelle Rickard have been teaching their 22 students in-person since early fall. “Preparation for reopening has been stressful, but the joy of in-person contact makes all the difference in the world. It is what gets me up in the morning,” Christiansen said. “Our special education students are so looking forward to being with their peers. And this gives them the chance to be the leaders. They have it down,” she said, speaking of the mitigation procedures they have practiced over the last six months.
“Kids have been craving some normalcy,” said Carys Bice, a parent of a 2020 graduate, a junior and a freshman. Her son, who also plays football and as a junior is well established, has fared well. But her daughter, a freshman, did not have those connections. “She is really excited to be returning in person,” Bice said. She and her husband both work full-time and have not been able to supply the support and structure the school can offer once it is open again.
Junior Jake Bice said that virtual classes had gone better than he expected, especially as technical glitches were resolved. But he said most students are excited to be getting back to the building. “It will be good to see friends and to have the in-person contact with teachers.”
There are still unknowns, and that has made both students and teachers nervous.
“We don’t know what we don’t know — how things might be different, adjusting teaching and expectations,” Beloate said. “In my class we talk about the habits of mind, and one of those habits is thinking flexibly. I try to model that.”
According to middle school parent Tina McKail, that has not been a problem at Key Peninsula Middle School. “It has been fantastic. He is so happy,” she said of her son. “He doesn’t mind the mask — he’ll do whatever it takes. It has been uplifting.”
“It has been such a gift in a strange way,” said Beloate, who has taught for 29 years including nine at PHS. “All of us have learned. I think about the phrase ‘growing pains’ — it’s hard, but you come out the other side.”
Bice said he views the challenges this way: “It will be cool — nothing like this has ever happened before.”
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