Tite Zeleke watched with relief as her 4-year-old, Numerson, stepped into his classroom at South Shore PreK-8 School on Monday morning. After more than a year of online learning, he had been so excited to see his teacher and friends that he stumbled and fell down on his way into the building, his mother said, smiling.
“It’s been challenging, being on a screen for such long periods of time,” Zeleke said, adding that she struggled to keep both her preschooler and 7-year-old son focused at home. “So we’re feeling good.”
Her older son, Immanuel, returns to school next week, she said. He’s also looking forward to reuniting with his friends — and returning to in-person math, he said Monday after seeing his younger brother off.
Teachers and staff members beamed as they greeted families outside South Shore. Districtwide, about 1,100 Seattle students enrolled in special education and preschool returned to in-person instruction Monday. The return came as a result of the most recent agreement between Seattle Public Schools and its teachers union, Seattle Education Association.
The day was full of emotion for South Shore’s assistant principal, Tia Yarbrough, who on Monday morning donned a black mask that read, “I’m essential.”
“It’s just been a long time coming,” Yarbrough said. “We’ve been preparing for the last few weeks — but really for the last (few) months, the last year — trying to get students back in school.”
At South Shore, staffers expected about 20 preschool and special-education students to return Monday, Yarbrough said. So far about a third of the school’s 600 students have committed to returning to in-person learning, she added.
Joanna Villavicencio said her son was thrilled to be back in class, so happy that he thanked his mom this morning before she dropped him off at South Shore.
“He was a little nervous, but excited to be around the other kids,” Villavicencio said. “Staying focused (during online learning) has been hard.”
Before entering the building, parents and guardians were asked to click through a quick survey on an iPad, which asked about possible COVID-19 symptoms and health issues. The school also recently hosted a Q&A session for families and completed several walk-throughs of the building in preparation for students’ and teachers’ return.
“We’re just excited to see the kids,” Yarbrough said. “That’s why we got into this business: to support student learning. So today is a good day.”
The morning wasn’t without minor mix-ups. One father waved goodbye to his third-grader and drove off before returning minutes later, belatedly realizing that students in kindergarten through fifth grade aren’t starting in-person instruction until April 5.
“Next week!” he said, laughing, adding that his son “had been waiting for this day for so long.”
At secondary schools across the district, some staff teaching special-education students were at their buildings for trainings. But at Franklin High School, there was a hiccup: Teachers reporting to work decided to work outdoors all day because they said their building’s HVAC system wasn’t passing inspections.
In a statement emailed Monday evening, the district acknowledged some rooms in the building didn’t meet HVAC industry guidelines. Additional air filters were added as a supplement, the statement said, but a teacher said the staff hadn’t received confirmation about the efficacy of those filters.
“Ventilation equipment varies building to building,” a district spokesperson wrote. “… We will work to help our staff better understand how we are managing ventilation in their building and keeping schools safe … We continue to add layers of mitigation strategies as part of the planning until we reach the ventilation goals, based on what we believe the occupancy will be for each individual classroom.”
The educators sat near the building’s main entrance, wearing gloves and blankets draped over the laps as they worked on their laptops.
“We’re patch-working things together,” said Lauren Holloway, an instructional assistant at the school.
Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau briefly stopped by the school to check in on the first day back for some students, and said that while it was great to see preschoolers in person, there are “no bad decisions” for families.
“Over a year ago, we made the switch as one of the first urban districts in the country … to close our doors and to go remote,” Juneau said. “That was such a decision that weighed heavy on our hearts. It was gut-wrenching. We thought we were closing our buildings for two weeks.”
She continued, “And now that there’s hope on the horizon that the pandemic is ending eventually, that we have vaccines, that we’re able to kind of look forward and see a future where we’ll be back in the buildings — it just buoys everybody and makes everyone a little bit more optimistic and hopeful.”
The union and district have been at the bargaining table for months, and last week approved the agreement that brings the youngest students back to school. Both parties are still negotiating a return for middle and high school students. On Monday, Juneau confirmed that they’d at least be back in school buildings by April 19, per Gov. Jay Inslee’s most recent directive.
“We’re getting close with our labor union,” she said.
Even though some students seemed a bit anxious on their first day back after so long, Juneau reassured families that educators were prepared to calm nerves.
“On Day 1, like we saw today, there was a little bit of trepidation from some of the students because it’s their first day ever stepping into a school building,” Juneau said.
“Going from the screen into real life is a big step, but also very exciting. And I think as students and families step into the buildings, see the attestation, see the health and safety protocols and kind of have an understanding of what schools are going to look like, a lot of that angst will temper itself.”
Seattle Times reporter Dahlia Bazzaz contributed to this story.