Back to learning, back to school to happen in the shadow of COVID-19

Buses will stay in the garage as school begins — online — this year for public
school students and teachers across the region. (Amy Nelson photo © 2020)

By Genevieve Iverson

— Coronavirus has this fall replaced the excitement of starting a new school year — new books and pens, new lesson plans, and, most of all, classes and classmates — with an air of uncertainty. Parents, teachers and students are taking things day by day, waiting for more information about how the school year will look. After COVID-19 shutdowns last spring forced schools to remote learning, many district teachers are still planning curriculums.

Cameron Morrow, who will be a senior at Sehome High School in Bellingham, reflected on a spring that lacked structure.

“It felt almost optional and pointless,” Morrow said. “I think this fall we will get back to actual learning.”

Bellingham Public Schools are delaying start dates to Sept. 8 and will be under a remote learning structure. Superintendent Greg Baker acknowledged staff, student, family and community feedback in an online update on Aug. 5.

“Over the summer, staff has been working hard to develop professional learning opportunities for our teachers to better prepare them to teach in an online environment,” Baker said in the update. “Remote learning will include scheduled live lessons taught via teleconferencing software with other tools to support independent learning at home.”

“I’m going to take an optimistic approach to it,” Morrow said. “I’m certain that it will be better than in the spring.”

The late start of Bellingham districts accommodates a full week of professional development for teachers. Beth Insera, a teacher at Bellingham’s Shuksan Middle School, said this extra week will give teachers training in online teaching and all the new tools that will be available to them. 

“I’m curious to see the new tools,” Insera said. “How do I call on kids? How do I get kids to pair up and share their ideas? I’m looking forward to learning how to make class more interactive and less ‘sit and listen to me for an hour.’ ”

‘Heroic’ adaptations

 At the end of the last school year, teachers lost the ability to work a classroom in person and had no time to prep for online work. Personal interactions got lost in the shuffle.

“What happened in the spring was so hard on teachers,” said Val Curtis, a former San Juan Island School District teacher and parent of two current students. “For teachers to have to flip a switch and hear, hey, take the rest of your year’s curriculum and put it online and teach remotely … good bad or indifferent, it was heroic what the teachers pulled off.”

Curtis, whose kids are going into fourth grade at Friday Harbor Elementary School and eighth grade at Spring Street International School, is preparing for an uncertain school year. Spring Street International School announced options for in-person learning this fall, conducted at a local beach, but Curtis’ son will continue with optional remote learning.

“We don’t have a vaccine yet, and at this time for our family we have decided to control what we can control,” Curtis said. “We can’t control other families, but we can control our exposure.”

In sharp contrast to public schools, private religious schools have decided to open in-person classes following state guidelines of six-foot distancing in classrooms, face masks, personal hygiene and surface cleaning, 

“This is a most challenging school year,” said Lynden Christian superintendent Paul Bootsman in a school video. “It certainly is in my school career.”

Lynden Christian schools plan to be open on Sept. 1 with all students on campus and no alternate student days. “We ask your support of Christian education,” said Bootsman, “as we seek to raise children in the fear and understanding of the Lord.”

As for the San Juan Island School District, tele-schooling will be implemented for at least the first nine weeks of the fall schedule.

Students first

“The teachers are working so hard to do everything they can to accommodate their students, and the administrators are, too,” Curtis said. “They are always students-first, and wanting everyone to get the best experience possible, and that’s really hard right now.”

Morrow, who is beginning to work on his college applications, said that he isn’t sure yet what kind of guidance he might receive. 

“If I want to ask a counselor for help on something, I won’t be able to,” Morrow said. “Getting recommendation letters will be over email versus being able to go in and talk to teachers. It’s going to feel disconnected, but I think it’ll work out OK.”

Morrow said he’s heard of peers who would consider enrolling in Running Start programs if Bellingham high schools remain on a remote learning programs for the rest of the school year. 

“If [learning] is all online anyway, might as well get college credit for it,” Morrow said.

Insera, who has a daughter enrolled at Kulshan Middle School in Bellngham, acknowledges that this new kind of learning puts pressure on the younger students as well.

“In the spring it was like, schedule yourself and manage your own time, if you don’t know what to do, figure out how to problem solve that on your own,” Insera said. “Those are skills that college students develop.”

Planning for ‘the unplannable’

A general consensus remains that teachers, parents and students are all waiting to see how the fall unfolds.

Curriculums will also look different as they head into adapted tele-schooling.

“I teach science, and science is a very hands-on subject,” Insera said. “We can’t make the assumption that every kid will have all the materials at home. We won’t be able to do any of the hands-on labs under a remote-only model, and that’s a huge part of science learning.”

Many schools look forward into fall with hopes to move into hybrid models of remote learning mixed with some in-person classes, but teachers, parents and students all need to be prepared for a school year entirely online.

Districts acknowledge the need for more information, as well as the need to have enough time to work out the kinks before school starts. In the most recent Bellingham district update, Baker highlighted that the behind-the-scenes work “sometimes feels like [planning for] the unplannable.”

“Everything is just shifting so quickly right now,” Curtis said. “Any dates that are thrown out right now, we know that they can move.”

Extracurriculars at most schools are on an indefinite hold. For Morrow, he will miss out on his final year on the wrestling team and participating in the school plays. 

“It’s really sad, but also really important to take safety first,” Morrow said. “Even if we lose out by not being able to do a lot of things, I think it’s important that we put them on hold and we make sure everyone is safe and getting schooling.”

Genevieve Iverson was born, raised and currently resides on San Juan Island. She studied journalism and creative writing at Western Washington University, and is an avid sailor in the Salish Sea.