PORT ANGELES — When students enter her classroom, Dry Creek Elementary School teacher Angela Tamas is also mining for symptoms of the pandemic that a thermometer or hygiene ritual won’t address.

Exhaustion. Anxiety. Frustration. Since her fifth graders came back in person last fall, she’s seen all three, and joy in between.

Schools in the Seattle area are just now setting up the stage for a broader reopening, but Port Angeles, a 3,300-student district on the Olympic Peninsula, is well into its second act. And as state and federal officials encourage more schools to open, this district could offer some valuable lessons about the complexities that remain months after bringing kids back.  

One of the first lessons: A transition away from full-time remote learning doesn’t mean a transition out of the pandemic. Just as they did online, educators are tailoring their approach to the toll the past year has had on students’ mental health. Though Port Angeles students are attending school only twice a week on a hybrid schedule, teachers say they must schedule more brain breaks between recesses and lunch.

“They don’t know what a school day is like anymore,” said Hannah Edstrom, an AmeriCorps tutor at Dry Creek. 

Teacher Angela Tamas checks the temperature of Alaina Alice as the fifth grader arrives for the first day back for in-person classes at Dry Creek Elementary School in Port Angeles on Jan. 11,  (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

Port Angeles was one of the first districts in Washington to pioneer safety protocols that still dominate reopening deliberations in urban settings such as Bellevue and Seattle, where student enrollment and community transmission rates are much higher. No cases have been linked to a Port Angeles school while classes have been in session (one case was recorded over winter break).

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Except for a brief, midyear shutdown last fall, Port Angeles buildings have been open for instruction to K-6 students since October, earlier for students with disabilities. Secondary students will go back this week.

Like their peers around the state, many Port Angeles students have experienced major upheavals in the last year. Some parents have divorced. Others lost their jobs. Families took in extended relatives who needed a place to live. And months of being sedentary and bored at home have thrown such a wrench in students’ circadian rhythms that Tamas has had to send a few students to the front office for a midday snooze.

Those waves of insomnia hit Maurice Pitchford, a student in Tamas’ class, from time to time. He spent much of the last year indoors, at his home on the Lower Elwha Klallam reservation. Seeing his friends has put him in better spirits since schools reopened, his mother Ashley says, but at night, “sometimes he’ll come out of the room at 11 and ask me for a melatonin gummy.” 

“Even if school is looking more like ‘normal’, things in the world around them might not be,” said Megan LaPalm, program supervisor for elementary school mental health and school counseling for the state Superintendent of Public Instruction’s office. “Kids process and internalize that.” 

Reteaching students how to learn

Dry Creek, built in 1998, sits on the rural edge of the district. The entrance of the school faces slopes dotted with evergreens at the base of the snow-capped Olympic mountains. Seventy percent of students are from low-income households, and 20% of the school’s students are Native American — many of whom are members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, whose reservation is just a short drive from the school. 

Tamas has taught the same set of students for two years, affording her a better read on their emotions. On Jan. 11, their first day back in class after a brief districtwide shutdown, the class was eerily quiet. She could sense the exhaustion. She had awoken at 4 a.m., left her 2-year-old son in the care of her mother, and arrived at the building at 6. 

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“Who here is still getting adjusted to waking up early?” Tamas asked after the morning bell. A student in the back of the classroom announced he had slept for just three hours. 

To prepare for in-person teaching, Tamas studied the missteps and successes of educators tasked with sharpening students’ skills after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and forced schools to close for months in 2005. 

She has a plan to make the last minutes of the day a study hall of sorts, but “right now, my priority is less about content, and more about executive functioning — reteaching students how to learn,” she said. 

That tension runs through the school: Among the staff, there is a fervor and urgency to help students get back into the swing of things. Academic interventionists are creating complex schedules to give students reading support and literacy tests without breaking social distancing protocols. The school’s counselor, Laura Lilly, and Native American student support specialist, Summer Cooper, are taking stock of students’ and families’ mental health, popping into classrooms and making phone calls home.   

But with a hybrid schedule, where half of the school’s population stays at home every day, it takes “two and a half weeks” to get the same amount of facetime with each student as a typical week, said Mary Krzysiak, a first- and second-grade teacher. 

Attendance at the school on in-person days is in the high 90s. But school principal Tiffiny Blore noticed that in-person instruction also means less participation when students are working from home. Parents, she suspects, are exhausted.

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“It’s a challenge of balancing that hair-on-fire feeling with that reality,” said Krzysiak. 

Reopening decisions 

The relatively low spread of the virus in Clallam County helped the district make a case to the community for reopening. Fewer than 1,000 people have contracted the virus here. As of Jan. 28, there were 92 cases per 100,000 people. Five people have died.

By comparison, King County currently has about 238 cases per 100,000 people. More than 1,200 have died.

During the same week as the statewide school shutdown order last spring, Marty Brewer, the Port Angeles superintendent, and Michelle Olsen, assistant superintendent, assembled a 50-person team to work on the district’s pandemic response. Bargaining with the teachers union also began immediately over safety protocols, many of which were implemented before any state guidance had arrived last summer. 

As in any district, educators in Port Angeles fall along a spectrum of opinions about reopening, said John Henry, the president of the Port Angeles Education Association union. But the district has been “very responsive” to their concerns. 

Educators and families who didn’t want to return to the classroom could teach and learn on the district’s online alternative learning program, Seaview. About 759 families — 22% of the district’s total enrollment — chose this option. 

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Members of the Lower Elwha tribe created an off-site learning center for students to access the internet and learn remotely on days they weren’t physically in class. The district provides transportation and free meals to the center. 

But there was still anxiety about school reopening decisions. Just after Thanksgiving, six weeks after district began reintroducing kindergarten through sixth graders for six weeks, Clallam County’s COVID-19 numbers spiked nearly 250 cases per 100,000, surpassing the state’s old recommended guidelines for reopening schools in hybrid mode. 

Gov. Jay Inslee had told Brewer and a few other superintendents that new, relaxed metrics were coming soon, but hadn’t specified a date. Brewer knew he could keep kids in school if he wanted, but he feared losing the community’s trust. 

“You can’t expect a teacher or a custodian or a secretary to do their very best when they fear for their own,” he said. “It became like, do I want to win the battle or win the war?” 

He suspended in-person learning. On Jan. 11, after the state health department and the governor’s office released revised numbers, K-6 students came back. 

Port Angeles plans to bring back middle- and high-school students this week, moved by data collected in a survey of seventh- through 12th-graders. Nearly half of the 850 students who answered said online school had negatively impacted their mental health. 

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“I’m scared to death that I’m going to bring COVID home to my husband who has heart failure,” said Kelly Elliott, a paraeducator at Dry Creek. Yet, “I love what I do and I love being with kids.”  (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

At Dry Creek, staff are relieved to see students in person again. But they are also fearful of getting the virus.

“I’m scared to death that I’m going to bring COVID home to my husband who has heart failure,” said Kelly Elliott, a paraeducator at the school. “Every day I risk things to be here … I love what I do and I love being with kids.” 

Tamas’ mother just received both doses of the vaccine, which has brought her some measure of peace, along with the district’s protocols. But she still feels a weight of responsibility for preventing illness in her classroom that could spread outside the school.

The school had a walk-through for parents at the beginning of the year to show off the safety measures in place. Every entrance is being used for pickup and drop-off to avoid crowding at the main doors, and the hallways are lined with floor stickers every 6 feet. 

The fifth graders in Tamas’ class mostly don’t mind the restrictions. They relish being back with their friends, and have found some inventive workarounds for common playground games. Instead of tapping each other for tag, said Kelsey Ross-Stoughton, 11, “You just point at each other and say, ‘You’re it.’” 

The most difficult part is wearing a mask for long periods of time, especially when you need to clean your braces after lunch, said fifth grader Kharleigh Swan. “But overall, I think they’re doing a good job.” 

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“Adults need routine, too”

As the kids worked on learning fractions, European colonization of Native lands and topic sentences, Tamas worked in the mental breaks. 

On Jan. 12, after her second group of students came back from recess with “excess energy to work off,” she delayed a lesson with a game of Simon Says, which included long bouts of hopping on one foot. She led them through deep breaths afterward.

Dry Creek students have adjusted to the need for social distancing, even at recess. Caige Lovell, left, and Logan Munoz walk the perimeter of the playground. The kids can unmask at recess if they stay 6 feet apart. 
 (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

Students’ energy levels have been improving every day since they came back, Tamas said. Last week, a student who normally struggles with math had a breakthrough and proclaimed, “Math is an infinite pathway!” 

The pandemic brought her closer to her students, who have helped filled the void of not seeing her family. It’s also bonded her with colleagues, who have spent hundreds of hours together preparing for students to return. Teachers have split the load in creating online assignments, each taking a different core subject. 

“We completely created this on our own,” said Tamas. “There definitely is this general feeling of apprehension and worry. To make it through this, you just have to be thinking about what’s best for kids every day. Otherwise I think you would get lost.” 

Custodian Robert Erickson uses a spray machine to disinfect a classroom at Dry Creek Elementary School in Port Angeles. Erickson makes a few rounds throughout the day to spray down lockers, classrooms and door handles.  (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

Outside the classroom, the gears of the school keep turning. 

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Robert Erickson, the school’s custodian, makes a full orbit three times a day, announcing his arrival with the smell of a thyme cleaner. Two YMCA employees sit in the cafeteria, which has been repurposed for child care. School secretaries sift through a mound of paperwork that students submit every day indicating they are symptom-free, and track down loose ends in the classroom. 

These rituals have been in place since the summer, said Susan Warren, who works in the front office. But with more students inside, they’ve taken on new meaning. 

“They say kids need routine. Well, adults need it, too,” she said.