The return to in-person learning will come with a few tradeoffs.
On Monday morning at Lewis and Clark High School, half the student body will be lined up outside in 30-degree weather, their faces covered by masks and their hands clutching an attestation – a promise that they haven’t recently been exposed to COVID-19.
After passing the temperature check at the door, they will follow the arrows to their first-period class. Because lockers are off-limits, their backpacks will be loaded with Chromebooks, as well as the old-fashioned kind.
Meanwhile, the other half of the student body will probably still be in their pajamas, pondering how many more times they can hit the snooze button and still make it to their first virtual class.
Their turn will come on Tuesday, and it will be a rude awakening for some.
However, their reward will be an educational experience that’s been lacking during the last year. By the consensus of teachers, parents and students, face-to-face learning is better than what everyone has endured since last March.
“We all recognize that students learn best in the classroom,” Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Adam Swinyard said when the school year began.
Since then, the state’s third-largest district has returned its students grade by grade. On Monday, middle- and high-schoolers will return on alternate days.
The long road back began almost a year ago, with the ragged retreat to distance learning, a summer of uncertainty and the march back from pedagogical purgatory.
The pace of that return has been criticized as too slow by some, too hurried by others. That hasn’t changed.
During a school board meeting Wednesday night, student adviser Sophie Winterroth, a senior at Shadle Park High School, said she worried about returning.
“There’s been a lot of tension among the students,” said Winterroth, who asked about quarantine procedures, overall safety and what will happen to the “rule breakers” who think they’re too cool to wear a mask.
“I just want to feel safe,” Winterroth said.
Swinyard couldn’t offer a guarantee of absolute safety – no one can, especially as most staffers remain unvaccinated. On top of that, parents got a scare last week when bus contractor Durham School Services disclosed that some employees tested positive for COVID-19.
At Lewis and Clark last week, teacher Sarah Jess was preparing her classroom while dealing with some mixed emotions.
“I’m excited to have students back. But I do have a lot of uncertainty,” said Jess, who teaches first- and second-year Spanish.
“We have good protocols in place and I’m glad that our classes have been measured. …. But I will teach with a mask on, and I may teach with two masks on,” Jess said.
The district maintains it has done everything reasonably possible to make buildings safe, and the return to in-person learning is backed by scientific data released in December, which showed that learning models have little effect on transmission of COVID-19.
That appears to be holding true at Spokane Public Schools, where as of Wednesday, only 10 positive tests were found to be the result of in-school transmission.
But Swinyard was clear on the subject of masks.
“We don’t have flexibility on whether they wear masks,” Swinyard said. “That’s going to be strictly enforced.”
To emphasize the point, LC assistant principal Phil High-Edward offered a tour of the new Commons, which he acknowledged will appear “dystopian.”
On the floor are exactly 290 pieces of tape, 6 feet apart from one another. By Monday, every piece of tape will be covered by a chair. All will face in the same direction.
At lunchtime, freshmen and sophomores will be expected to occupy those seats and eat their meals. After each bite and drink, they must place the mask back over their mouths.
And if they don’t?
“We’re going to do the best we can to help them out,” said High-Edward, who expected to have adult monitors on hand.
Upperclassmen will follow the same protocols as they eat lunch in their classrooms.
Addressing the skeptics who fear that teens and adolescents will balk at wearing masks, Swinyard pointed out that every class from kindergarten and up has been compliant.
“Regardless of the grade level, our kids do an amazing job,” Swinyard told school board members last week.
At Central Valley High School, where students returned four weeks ago, Principal Kerri Ames admitted that “we were worried about kids wearing their masks.”
“But they have met our expectations as long as we were clear in our expectations,” Ames said.
At nearby University High School, Principal Keven Frandsen noted that teen rebelliousness is more than offset by a desire to get back to normal.
“We learned that people are very appreciative to be back in buildings,” Frandsen said.
High-Edward said he got the same message during a recent visit to the Mead School District, where secondary students have been in buildings part time since September.
“The message I got was, the kids don’t what to jeopardize this,” High-Edward said as he placed orange-and-black tape to the floors of the hallway.
“That’s what I’m counting on,” High-Edward said.
Meanwhile, teachers at Rogers High School were considering the other half of the risk-reward equation of returning to buildings.
For many students, distance learning has been a disaster.
“I’m only halfway through where I should be, contentwise,” science teacher Shawn Carney said. “I have some kids who I don’t know if they’ve done the assignments.”
“I have some kids who are awesome, but on the others, I’m beating my head against a wall – the emails and the phone calls are not working,” Carney said.
Carney predicts that March will be “rough” as students transition back to in-person learning, but they need to be back in class.
Kids are suffering emotionally as well. Natalie Sarria-Wiley, a mental health therapist at Rogers, has spent hundreds of hours visiting homes, looking for the red flags that have gone unnoticed for almost a year.
“Some of them don’t have stable housing,” said Sarria-Wiley, who also tries to connect families and children with food and other necessities.
There are more reasons to get kids back to class, said Mark Lund, principal at Glover Middle School in northwest Spokane.
“We’ve definitely grown as a system, and our teachers have done a phenomenal job,” Lund said. “But we know that the social-emotional needs of our students are higher than ever before.”
“We’ve got to meet those needs,” Lund said.
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