School in the Time of Covid: Students on Going Back, or Not

After a year out of the classroom for most of them, our children are working hard to find some kind of normal.

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The Peninsula School District opened its doors to the last of its online students in mid-March for those who wanted to return. Not everyone did.

Of its 9,000 students, 1,889 chose to continue remote learning instead of returning to the classroom, according to PSD.

The district has been holding in-person classes for high-needs students since July and welcomed back kindergartners and first-graders at the end of September. Other elementary students returned in January and February, and middle schoolers returned Feb. 25 followed by high schoolers in March. All facilities require social distancing, masks and daily health checks, and have divided students into separate cohorts with alternating hybrid schedules, combining in-person with remote learning to keep class sizes small for distancing.

As Pierce County slipped back to Phase 2 restrictions to combat a fourth wave of COVID-19 in April, PSD reported five cases in students or staff originating in its schools compared to 54 cases originating outside school since Sept. 8. The Tacoma School district had eight confirmed cases in April alone.

“We’re learning how to multiply fractions right now and divide them. We just finished reading ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.’ It’s the perfect amount of work,” said fifth-grader Allison Taylor, 11, part of the morning cohort at Evergreen Elementary School.

Taylor’s in-person school day starts at 9 and ends at 11:30 a.m., then continues online with a specialist in the afternoon when the second shift arrives for in-person instruction. “We’re all in the same class but at different times,” she said.

“It’s different because you still have to wear masks, and the whole distance thing, and there’s not like a full class, but it’s better than online,” she said. There are eight students in her morning group. “I miss being able to just see everybody and it being normal.”

Taylor has always liked school, but said she is uncertain about moving on to middle school next year.

“I’m used to elementary, I know how to do it, but I’ve never done periods with different teachers and all that stuff,” she said. “I wanted it to be normal for my first year so I could figure everything out. It would be amazing if it went back to normal before middle school, but it probably won’t.”

Eighth-grader Dylan Shipman, 14, elected to continue remote learning rather than return to Key Peninsula Middle School in-person. “A lot of the aspects I liked before Covid weren’t going to be there,” he said. “I just figured I’m two-thirds of the way through the year, why not just finish it off instead of having another change?”

As with elementary, the district instituted substantial schedule changes across all grade levels to accommodate hybrid and remote learning, and to maintain safe numbers of students in classrooms.

“On Mondays and Thursdays my school starts at 8:15 and goes to 11:30; I have all my Zooms in that first part of the day, and then you have time to do the work,” Shipman said. “Tuesdays and Fridays I have Cougar Academy (home room) and then a three hour chunk of time until my fourth, fifth and sixth period, and that goes from 12 to 2:45. Wednesdays was probably the biggest change: We went from having no Zooms to all-day Zooms, six classes all day, from 9:15 to 2:45. I have some club activities and an ASB (Associated Student Body) meeting usually too on that day, so that takes up most of the day.”

But staying remote brought even more changes than Shipman anticipated.

“All my teachers are new and from different schools: I have Goodman, I have Kopachuck, I have Harbor Ridge (teachers),” he said. “The only teacher I did have is now in Cougar Academy instead of social studies, so I don’t even have him.”

The same is true for his online classmates, he said. “I’m with kids from all over. My classes got way bigger. On average, we have about 30. Before, with just KPMS kids, it was about 22 students.”

Shipman said that he and his classmates lost out on activities they were looking forward to over the last year, but that these latest changes weren’t necessarily bad.

“I really miss my old teachers but I love my new teachers,” he said. “I didn’t really think switching teachers and having new kids halfway through the year would be something that I liked, but it’s kind of a positive for me. Hopefully some of those students will go to high school with me, so when I’m walking into a new school for the first time I’ll at least know some of them.”

Grace Nesbit, 15, a sophomore at Peninsula High School, also decided to finish the school year online instead of returning to in-person learning.

“There are a lot of pros and cons to each, but I figured that the safety precautions were not set up with high schoolers in mind,” Nesbit said. Her online classes keep her extremely busy, she said, and she just finished the swim team season where she earned her first athletic letter, and plans to start water polo soon.

“I still would really like to go back; I just think it’s better to be safe than sorry. I feel like right now that if people get their vaccines that will help a lot, things can start opening up more and start going back to normal.”

Nesbit’s classmate Nathan Kuhnau, 16, elected to return to in-person learning at PHS.

“Personally it’s harder for me to learn online because at home I have a lot of distractions. As soon as we got back I saw a big increase in my grades and my overall mood getting more excited about going to school,” he said.

“We have to sit 6 feet in between each desk,” Kuhnau said. “I’m not the most social person, but it feels weird not to have your friends sit next to you. (But) we can go with these rules as long as we can be back and be with our friends.”

Living through the pandemic changed some of Kuhnau’s personal relationships, he said.

“I was lucky, I had a pretty solid friend group when we got shut down. We made a couple of group chats to talk to each other and make sure we were all doing OK and that no one was going through something they weren’t talking to us about. Before the pandemic all of our conversations were about sports and that kind of stuff. Now we’re always checking in, you know, just ‘How you doing?’ ”

PHS senior Deven Meddaugh, 18, said the safety rules don’t interfere with the school day too much. “We all went back thinking it was going to be like prison, like no one’s allowed to talk at lunch, that kind of thing, but it didn’t end up being like that. Masks, honestly, aren’t that big of a deal,” she said.

“This whole Covid thing and all the changes has been going on long enough that nothing really surprises me anymore. It’s just too disappointing to focus on everything that’s been taken away from us,” Meddaugh said. “I feel really grateful for the teachers that are back. It’s really nice to know and hear that they genuinely want to know how we’re doing.”

Emily Muterspaugh, a 17-year-old senior at PHS, said “I mentally prepared myself to continue the entire year virtually and didn’t get my hopes up in case we never got the chance to return, but it feels great to come back and have a chance to redeem any form of a senior year experience. At this point, I think everyone does their best to act normal and to not talk about their experience with the pandemic too often; we’ve been desensitized to it in a way.”

Muterspaugh takes college-level courses through Running Start but is still on campus for two in-person classes and for the tennis team.

“I’ve been playing tennis since freshman year and this is my first year on varsity,” she said. “It’s the closest feeling I’ve had to a community since the pandemic started and it’s an awesome feeling to be a part of a team again.”


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