In January, for the first time since schools closed last spring, Renee Harding’s kids were back in the classroom. Her daughter was first, returning to four full days a week of second grade Jan. 19. Two weeks later her sons, fourth and fifth graders, were back for half days in the mornings.
“She is ecstatic and so happy to be back in school. It’s different, but whatever her teacher is doing, she is doing a good job. She has a light back in her,” Harding said of her daughter. “The boys are happy as clams.”
Tricia Endsley, the Communities in Schools of Peninsula coordinator at Evergreen Elementary School, and a parent of a fourth grader, said “From a mom’s perspective it’s been amazing. My son couldn’t sleep the night before he went back to school. You’d think we were going to Disneyland.”
Middle school is scheduled to open using a hybrid model March 1 with sixth grade orientation Feb. 25 and 26. When high schools reopen will depend on when COVID-19 infections fall to a rate of 200 per 100,000 over 14 days. The rate in Pierce County was 217 at press time.
Planning for the return has been complicated. Infection control mitigation measures meant that class sizes had to be smaller, making it impossible to bring all students back full-time and leading to a hybrid model that combines in-person with asynchronous and online learning. Logistics for transportation, meals, recess and passing from one class to another had to be taken into account.
Advisory teams of teachers, counselors, principals and district administrators led the planning. The goal, said Assistant Superintendent Dan Gregory, was to bring service, connection and quality instruction to all students whether families chose in-person or remote options.
The district also accommodated teachers who needed to teach remotely due to health concerns. Specific classroom schedules and assignments and daily logistical decisions were made at the school level.
Second graders returned to school four days a week Jan. 19 using the same schedule the kindergarten and first grade classes have followed since late September. Two weeks later they were joined by the older primary students, with those taking the bus attending in the afternoon and the others coming in the morning.
The half days are two and a half hours long. Instruction focuses on language arts and math, and students have assignments to complete at home. Students have short breaks in the classroom but there is no time for recess. A backpack-style lunch and breakfast to be eaten at home is provided each day to all students. Wednesdays are remote and include a Zoom classroom meeting with the teacher.
“Evergreen is a small school and community is such a critical piece,” Evergreen Elementary School Principal Hugh Maxwell said. “It is uplifting to be back together.” He described the school tradition of waving to all the kids in buses as they go home in the afternoon. “It feels so good to have four buses with lots of kids on each bus,” he said.
“It is great to be back in the classroom. It is great to see the kids each day and to make some of those connections that are often difficult to make via Zoom meetings,” said Morgan Johnson, third grade teacher at Minter Creek Elementary School. “I had kids who struggled to get on the meetings and who never turned in a single assignment and now I am getting to see them in person and getting completed work. I will take that as a huge win.”
Getting students back into the classroom has had its challenges. As classrooms went from fully remote to a combination of hybrid and remote, some students were assigned to different teachers and some teachers were assigned different classrooms.
“It’s like shifting sands,” Maxwell said. “There have been changes as some families decided they wanted to return to school and others had health issues that meant they wanted to go back to remote learning.”
Vaughn Elementary School Principal Abbie Barabe said that because Vaughn has more students who take the bus, their afternoon classes are full now, which makes it harder to meet the requests of families.
Barabe is proud of what her teachers have done, learning how to teach remotely and then moving to a hybrid model. Noting that until physical distancing is no longer required, schools will not be able to return to full in-person teaching, she said she is nervous about the fall and the unpredictability of what is to come. Teachers have had to reinvent how to teach twice in the last 12 months, going from in-person to remote and now to hybrid models. “I don’t know that teachers could learn yet another job,” she said.
Endsley said that by the second week of students returning , Evergreen felt like a well-oiled machine. “There haven’t been any major issues with behavior problems. The kids are so happy to be back.”
But she too has concerns for next year. “I definitely think there will be a whole cohort of children who will be behind. Zoom teaching is just not the same. In terms of state testing, these kids are just not there.”
UNDERWRITTEN BY NEWSMATCH/MIAMI FOUNDATION, THE ANGEL GUILD, ROTARY CLUB OF GIG HARBOR, ADVERTISERS, DONORS AND PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT LOCAL, INDEPENDENT NONPROFIT NEWS