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Around Seattle, the oldest students return to school buildings for the first time in more than a year

UPDATED: Tue., April 20, 2021

By Dahlia Bazzaz, Elise Takahama </p><p>and Hannah Furfaro Seattle Times

SEATTLE – On 18-year-old Giselle Villasana’s first day back at Mariner High School in Everett, she arrived early with the rest of her cheerleading squad to help greet incoming freshmen – many of whom had never been on campus.

“It was kind of shocking to see a whole class of freshmen I’ve never seen before,” said Villasana, who’s a senior this year. She’s been looking forward to returning to classrooms for a long time, she said. “This is typically the time people get senioritis, so going back to school motivates you to finish strong.”

In Western Washington, the Class of 2021 found itself at an emotional crossroads like no other this spring. Thousands of their peers in central and Eastern Washington have been attending school in person for months, but students in the Puget Sound region – where school buildings have remained closed for more than a year – weren’t sure whether they would see their classmates and teachers in person before graduation.

In March, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all school districts to open their buildings to middle and high school students by April 19. Ever since, students and their families have been weighing the pros and cons of returning.

Monday was either the start of a late-term adventure in pandemic schooling for those who wanted to go back in person – or another “normal” day of Zoom school for those who didn’t. While many students said they were excited to be back in school, a few who planned to join in from home were caught by surprise when they found out that their hybrid schedule had changed.

There is no tally of how many middle and high school students headed back this week – the state isn’t keeping count. But at Seattle Public Schools, the state’s largest district, 50% of about 21,000 families of sixth- through 12th-graders who responded to a district survey opted for in-person instruction.

Like many teens, Villasana has not been vaccinated and has trouble shaking her fear of catching or spreading the virus, she said after finishing her classes – physics, AP Spanish and math – on Monday. Still, she’s excited to be back in school and can’t wait to start college.

She was halfway through her junior year when schools shut down in March, but she started to apply to colleges. Villasana would be the first in her family to go to college, and her parents and older siblings weren’t familiar with the application process, she didn’t know how to navigate on her own. Teachers and guidance counselors were reachable on email, she said, but she wouldn’t always get quick responses.

Fortunately, she said, some semblance of normalcy is starting to return.

Her cheerleading squad has started practicing twice a week – though it has to keep masks on and take temperatures beforehand – and it will get to cheer at home basketball games next month. Mariner High School is also planning to hold in-person graduation ceremonies in June. Villasana was accepted into the University of Washington, her dream school. She plans to start in the fall as a pre-nursing major.

It was also the first day back for middle school students. About 15 minutes west in Mukilteo, blue balloons decorated the front of Harbour Pointe Middle School on Monday morning as sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students also arrived for their first day back in classrooms. Many middle schoolers were beaming behind their masks as they lined up outside, spaced out on white marks painted on the ground as they waited to check in with a school staffer.

As kids arrived, Myles Higgins, a seventh-grader and the school mascot, waved from inside his blue-and-white hawk costume. It had been almost exactly a year since he was in the school, and he said he was “excited, but a little nervous” to be back.

Fits and starts

Here’s how 18-year-old Michael Sheeran expected his first week back at high school to unfold: On Monday and Tuesday, he’d learn online all day, and in the afternoons, he’d log on to a hybrid class. There, he’d see his teacher teaching, and half of his classmates learning in person, while others, were also learning from home. On Thursday and Friday, he’d be the one learning in a physical classroom.

But that’s not the way it happened.

Early Monday morning, the West Seattle High School senior’s special education teacher told him he wasn’t invited to Monday and Tuesday’s afternoon sessions.

“It’s rough,” said Sheeran, who is neurodiverse and learns in general education classes. “Apparently, it’s been difficult through the COVID pandemic for schools to visualize changing the learning for everybody, and (changing) the support for students who learn differently.”

The switch was just one more example of chaos this school year: As far as his family could tell, the school hadn’t sent them a single email or other warning of the change.

Sheeran excels in his classes, his mother said. He wants to become an engineer. But he sometimes has trouble focusing, and needs help from teachers to stay organized or on task.

News that he would have any time in person came as a relief. On Thursday and Friday, his parents plan to drive him from their home in Hillman City to West Seattle for a couple of hours of in-person instruction in the afternoon. He’ll reunite with friends he hasn’t seen in more than a year. And he’ll prepare to say goodbye.

“I would have liked to hang out with people a little before the end of the year. We’re all like small fish. We’re going to be distributed, we are going to go to a bunch of locations … I can’t imagine being as in touch with those people after high school.”

Online routine

Remote school hasn’t been easy for Isatu Scott and India Unwin, seniors at high schools in South Seattle. But they decided to stay remote because they feared contracting the virus and didn’t want to go through a transition this late in the year.

Unwin, a 18-year-old Franklin High School senior, began her Monday just like she has all school year: She woke up early and signed in online for her 9 a.m. class – team sports.

“There’s not much of a team element to it,” she joked. “Most of the class is actually my teacher talking to us and chatting about basketball or whatever comes up, which is really nice to have. That’s what I miss about school, the natural, organic conversation.”

Her decision to forgo the end of her senior year in person was an emotional one, she said. But more time alone has given her space to think about her future.

Over the summer, she saw every archaeology documentary she could find. She wants to study the subject in college, and eventually work for the National Park Service.

Scott, who attends Cleveland STEM High School, decided she would ride out the rest of the year remotely. But she has found herself yearning to be back in person at times.

Before the pandemic, “I was a bit more motivated or involved. Whether it was clubs, or communicating … A few friends and I would stay after class and get some work done … With remote learning, I give up easier” when I don’t understand something, Scott said. Last semester, she got her first C in AP calculus.

She works mostly from her bed, in a busy home with seven other siblings where the internet can cut out. In the afternoons, the time set aside for students to attend in person in Seattle, she works a part-time job.

“I’ll be doing chores (during class), washing dishes while in class, or making rice,” Scott said. “I have a lot of things going on even though I’m muted. But I’m focused. I take notes.”

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