The first day of school never felt this cold. Or this warm.
Back Monday for the first time in almost a year, students at North Central High School spent the first 15 minutes outside, shivering.
But after a few steps inside, it felt like they’d never left. The hallways were decorated with balloons and ribbons in school colors of red and black.
At the end of the main hall was a giant sign that said it all: “Welcome home.”
As reassuring as the sights, were the sounds – of a teacher pointing a lost-looking freshman in the right direction, or Principal Steve Fisk greeting a returning student.
Even a reminder to “put your mask over your nose” felt less like a command.
In the secondary school buildings of Spokane Public Schools, Monday felt like a combination of freshman orientation, homecoming and a masquerade ball, though at least you could see everyone’s eyes.
“Having our kids back is wonderful,” Fisk said. “For me this is priceless. Definitely we are doing it differently, but this is what we do.”
Inside Matthew Johnson’s class on the second floor, they were doing face-to-face learning for the first time in almost a year since COVID-19 cleared out the buildings in Spokane Public Schools.
The district’s secondary students finally returned on Monday. At NC, some of the faces were still familiar, but not others.
Looking ahead to a day of history classes, Johnson said, “I’ve never really met some of them before, so it’s exciting to be able to put a name to a face.”
More to the point, they’ll be able to see the expressions on those faces – “to make sure they’re engaging, to see who they are and their emotions,” Johnson said.
Because privacy laws allow it, many students opted to turn off their screens and sound after logging onto class during distance learning.
As sophomore Sienna Phillips waited outside, she said she felt shortchanged by the whole process.
“Online didn’t feel like full-on learning,” Phillips said. “You’re just getting the information, not learning it.”
“And hardly anybody turned their cameras on in classes,” Phillips said. “It was just empty and black.”
Emerson Hutyler, a junior, felt that distance learning was “difficult, especially when you’re a hands-on learner.”
“Math was terrible,” Hutyler said.
Even worse, everyone agreed, was the loss of connection with teachers and friends and friendships that were never made because of the pandemic.
Freshmen Arlis Vashon and Merrick Jones had attended NC’s Informational Technology Services program as seventh and eighth graders, so the building wasn’t new.
However, both said they felt that they’d missed out.
“This is better than online because we get to see people, and it’s easier to communicate with teachers,” Vashon said as he waited to go inside.
Jones, who unlike most of his friends doesn’t have his own cellphone, said he stayed in touch via his laptop.
“I got through it a little bit, but it was still difficult,” Jones said.
Inside the building, everyone was adjusting to the latest version of normal.
Johnson tried to instill a sense of caution, though he tried not to be overbearing.
“Look under your chairs on the floor,” he told the students. “There’s a piece of Velcro, and that’s officially where your seat is supposed to be.”
The message: Stay put to help maintain social distancing.
Johnson asked if everyone understood the “rigamarole” of in-person learning. All 13 students nodded.
Back in the hallway, Fisk seemed to be everywhere at once. As stragglers wandered in from the cold, he motioned them to the right side of the tape that divided the hall.
Suddenly the hallway felt like a metaphor for the road ahead.
“It feels like a traffic course,” he said. “But this is good practice for our ninth graders who’ll soon be taking driver’s ed,” Fisk said.
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