September 8, 2021
Pack a lunch, don a mask: kids go back to school in person as COVID-19 persists
Ella Banken

The school day starts at the bus stop, for many kids in south Bellingham and throughout the county. This year, masks are part of the daily protocol, starting first thing in the morning as students gather to board the bus. (Amy Nelson photo © 2021)

September 8, 2021
Pack a lunch, don a mask: kids go back to school in person as COVID-19 persists
Ella Banken

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In the midst of the ongoing pandemic, students are dusting off backpacks, packing lunches — and picking out masks to accompany their back-to-school outfits. 

Vaccination rates vary by age in Whatcom County with 12- to 24-year-olds showing the lowest percentages, per a chart prepared by the Washington State Department of Health based on data available as of Sept. 1.

To ease the transition back to school, Riley Sweeney took his son Cypress shopping to pick out fabric for new masks. This will be Cypress’ second year of preschool, and he has grown accustomed to the requirements of in-person learning, including his puppy-patterned face covering.

The 4-year-old is attending Children’s Co-Op Preschool in Whatcom County, which meets outdoors in Bellingham parks two days a week. For him, outdoor classes means dealing with wind and rain as fall approaches, but being able to socialize with his peers at this age is something that is very important to his parents. 

This is a dilemma that many parents are facing as the school year begins. As of Sept. 1, 58.2% of all Whatcom County residents have been fully vaccinated, according to the Washington State Department of Health. For children under the age of 12, however, that option is not yet available. The decision to send kids back to school is not an easy one for many families, as it increases risk of transmission to many who have been working hard to protect vulnerable family members. 

‘How would your friend feel?’

Homeschooling has been the norm for Jackson (left) and Joshua Myhre during the pandemic until this fall, when Jackson will attend classes in person part-time. (Courtesy photo)

Amber Myhre and her two sons, ages 8 and 4, have been fighting COVID for over a month in their Lynden home. For Myhre, this solidified the decision to keep her kids at home for the school year. For the past year and a half Myhre’s family has remained distanced from public settings due to complex health issues, so their contraction of COVID was quite discouraging. 

Myhre will be homeschooling her older son this year, while the younger will be participating in a hybrid-model preschool. These decisions did not come easily. Her sons have complex needs, including underlying health issues and developmental disabilities, which makes navigating schooling more complicated at this time. 

“I think all kids deserve the right to socialize and to get all of their educational needs met, and to be moving forward developmentally,” Myhre said. “But for me, it’s been, how do we do that for our family in a way that’s safe?”

Trying to explain the need to isolate and distance has been challenging, Myhre explains. Overall, they have been talking about the situation like caring for a friend — how would that make someone else feel? 

Myhre worries that this same level of empathy is not shown towards her family, and others with disabilities. She has encountered attitudes from folks that think those with disabilities should be used to staying at home anyway. The family is eager to further re-integrate into public settings, and Myhre looks forward to the community “stepping up” to help slow the spread of the virus. 

A silver lining

Despite frustrations over the need to stay away from others, Myhre’s boys have no issues with masks. Many other parents are finding this to be the case for their children as well. For younger children like 4-year-old Cypress, requirements like frequent hand-washing have become habitual routines that are approached thoughtfully and readily, according to Sweeney. 

Jillie Despain has heard a lot of frustration from parents in her community about the requirements for kids to wear masks in school. What she has observed, however, is this frustration is not shared by the kids.

Masks are not a problem for Nooksack Valley Middle School students Aiden (left) and Luka Despain: “We just want to be back in school.” (Courtesy photo)

Despain is a mother to twin 12-year-olds and a newborn. Once her seventh graders became eligible, they were quick to get vaccinated. Within the Nooksack School District, the twins engaged in hybrid in-person and online classes over the last school year. Due to inconsistent internet connection, this proved to be challenging for the family. The switch back to full-time in-person school was a relief for her kids. 

” ‘We just want to be in school, masks don’t really matter’,” Despain says is the no-problem attitude of her kids. “We just want to be at school with our friends.”

Schools — and students — adapting

At Shuksan Middle School in Bellingham, Beth Insera has noticed the same attitude from her sixth and eighth grade students. School resumed on Sept. 1, and she has faced no challenges about students wearing masks in the classroom. According to her, the students are just thrilled to be back at school in a close to normal capacity. 

All students and staff are required to wear masks in school buildings and on school transportation, according to the Bellingham Public Schools website. Masks are optional in outdoor spaces. The district has protocols in place for confirmed COVID cases, which includes notifying the families of students who are identified as having been in close contact. The notification process is highly private, according to Insera, staying between the teacher and the family.

The Whatcom County Health Department (WCHD) is working with the school districts to develop isolation protocols, and each district is planning their own contact tracing procedures, according to Jennifer Moon, WCHD communications specialist.

Classrooms such as Beth Insera’s at Shuksan Middle School that were left empty during the shutdown have opened up for students once again this fall. (Courtesy photo)

If a student is sick, or required to quarantine, it is treated as a normal absence, Insera explained. She is easily able to share class notes and lessons with students, who are all equipped with district issued laptops. 

Having worked through a variety of online and hybrid class models over the past year and a half, this is the closest Insera has come to normalcy. 

“[The students] were excited and eager to come back,” Insera said. “And so far it’s been going really good, like all positive.”