It had been 17 months since Michelle Mahurin had smelled the air inside of a school, one of her favorite smells behind fresh-cut grass and popcorn.
On Monday, as the veteran educator walked through the doors of Mattson Middle School in Covington, she caught the whiff of printed books, hand sanitizer and whiteboard markers through her mask.
“It’s like going to my grandma’s and smelling her cooking,” said Mahurin, an inclusive education program specialist for the Kent School District. “It’s the feeling of home, and where I’m supposed to be.”
Tens of thousands of kids and educators in the Seattle area, who spent more time outside of school buildings in this pandemic than most others in the country, are making a full-time return to in-person learning this week. Many start on Wednesday, including Seattle Public Schools, the largest district in the state and the first urban school system to shut down in 2020.
It brings a measure of relief to the families, students and educators who are ready to shed the enormous logistical, academic and mental health challenges associated with schooling online.
But switching back to traditional school hours with the coronavirus still raging comes with its own complications, especially in a pandemic of the unvaccinated. The final weeks of summer vacation brought news of how easily the delta variant spreads among children; those under 12 still don’t have access to a vaccine.
In one case studied by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an unvaccinated teacher in California spread the delta variant of the virus to half of her classroom.
Vaccine-maker Pfizer says it will have enough research to support emergency authorization for children 5-11 years old by the end of this month, while Moderna projects it will have enough data by the end of this year for a shot given to children 6-11 years old, according to NPR.
Washington state schools operate under some of the strictest safety protocols in the nation, including a vaccine mandate for all school employees effective Oct. 18, and mandatory masking in schools. Schools are expected to keep 3 feet of distance between people when possible, and some are moving their cafeterias outside.
While research has shown these types of precautions have helped keep the spread of the virus relatively low in schools, they have not been studied in the context of the delta variant.
Across the country and here, some parents and even school employees have organized against the mandates, staging protests and showing up maskless to school board meetings. Washington state schools superintendent Chris Reykdal warned last month amid these outbursts that school districts will risk losing their funding if they don’t enforce the mask and vaccine orders.
After seeing a decline in childhood cases of the virus earlier this summer, the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends in-person schooling for most kids, reported on Aug. 26 a more than “fivefold” increase in cases over the past month — from about 38,000 cases the week ending July 22 to nearly 204,000 reported on Aug. 26. The rates of death and hospitalization among children are still low, King County health officials said last week. But health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said he is still “very worried about what may happen when our children come back to school for in-person learning.”
Mahurin, who travels to schools across the Kent area to help in classrooms focused on students with disabilities, said much of the work since the district’s first day of school last Thursday has revolved around adjusting kids back to the routine of school. Sometimes kids will get the wiggles, or need reminders to keep their distance. But overall, she said, she’s been impressed with how well the schools have followed the protocols.
“For parents and teachers, give yourself some grace,” she said. “It’s been a while.”
Seattle mother Kendal Au was set on sending her son, a second grader, back to school until a few weeks ago, when she saw reports that Seattle Children’s hospital had been seeing more severe cases of the virus among kids. Au, a cancer survivor, said she and her husband both have medical conditions that could put them at higher risk for complications from the virus.
She applied for the school district’s virtual academy just before the deadline passed last month, but said on Tuesday she still hadn’t heard back from the district.
It was a difficult decision. Her son, who was enrolled at Dearborn Park Elementary School last year, experienced a lot of anxiety while learning from home, she said.
Her hope was that she could switch him back to in person once a vaccine is available for kids his age, but she learned that returning to in-person learning at a school isn’t guaranteed.
For Melynie Elvidge, a parent with three children in the Northshore School District — which includes Bothell High School, the first U.S. school to shut down because of the virus — Wednesday marks the end of the “longest summer vacation ever.” She said the toll on mental health and academics from staying at home makes it worth sending her kids back to school.
“It felt like no one could have understood what we went through because we shut down so early and so definitively,” she said. “This is so exciting for us.”
Last week, just before her family was about to go on a final summer vacation to Lake Chelan, her school-aged kids, two of whom are vaccinated, were preoccupied with another occasion.
They planned their outfits for the first day of school and stocked their backpacks with school supplies.