For the first time in more than a year, tens of thousands of students and educators in the Seattle area will be going back to school full time and in person.

Wednesday marks the return of in-person learning for several school districts, including Seattle Public Schools, the largest district in the state.

However, with the new academic year comes complications particularly related to keeping kids and teachers safe during the coronavirus pandemic as the delta variant continues to spread among children. Those 12 and under are not yet eligible for a vaccine.

Throughout Wednesday, on this page, we’ll be sharing news and updates from the first day of school around Puget Sound and in Washington state.

'Jumble' of emotions for first grade students as they return to the classrom

For teacher Mark Juaton’s first-grade class at Rising Star Elementary in south Seattle, Wednesday was focused on relationship building. For some of his students, he said, it was their first time being in a classroom, so it was important to build connections early on. He said students learned about their mutual interests and he shared some things about his life so students would also feel connected to him. 

“I was making sure all children had a sense of connection during the team-builder we did today,” said Juaton, who’s been teaching for about 11 years. “This week we’re going to be creating self-portraits.”  

It was a “jumble” of emotions in the classroom, Juanton said. Some students were “excited,” “unsure,” or “nervous.”

“They (students) felt more at ease after they saw some of their peers from last year,” Juaton said. “It’s totally a testament to the kindergarten teacher last year who really built a community in the sense that some only knew each other online and they still recognized the person.”

Juaton has also changed some of his curriculum to integrate some of the things that have changed since the pandemic began. He read the class a book about social distancing and taught them why it’s important to wear a mask, he said.

—Monica Velez
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Seattle-area schools enter a new era of pandemic education as students return to in-person learning

Wednesday kicked off Seattle Public Schools and surrounding districts’ return to full-time, in-person learning since the pandemic started. Many students here in the region returned to school buildings last spring for hybrid education. In-person classes were small, lunchrooms were closed, and students spent some time each week learning online. Many kids in Eastern Washington spent most of last school year learning face-to-face. 

But for some children, this week marks the first time in 17 months they’ve stepped foot on school grounds. 

In Seattle, the day began with snags. Some school buses were an hour late, and families were given little warning. Caregivers received an email late Tuesday night alerting them to the delay, and encouraging a “backup plan” to get their children to school for the first few weeks.

A bus driver shortage is to blame, the school district’s email said. On Wednesday morning, Seattle Superintendent Brent Jones didn’t clarify how long the busing issues might last.

The surge of coronavirus infections in recent weeks poses other serious challenges to keeping students and staff healthy — and classroom doors open. “We know it’s going to be difficult,” Jones said. “However, we are evolving.”

Seattle Times reporters fanned out across the region Wednesday to see how the first day back unfolded. Reporters weren’t allowed inside most schools they visited since many districts’ pandemic safety rules limit visitors from coming indoors. But the first few hours back to class offered a small window into the future.

Read the full story here.

—Seattle Times staff

'Bittersweet': First day filled with connection activities fills socializing needs, fuels safety concerns

Editor's Note: The Seattle Times is publishing dispatches from local families, teachers and school staff about their experiences during this back-to-school season.

Although my oversized quarantine sweatpants and T-shirts grew to become my COVID fashion statement, it felt nice to finally dress up for the first day of school.

Like many of my peers, feelings of anxiety and excitement intensified as the ringing of the starting bell approached. What if people don’t even recognize me? What if someone chooses to take off their mask? These “what ifs” continued to replay in my mind as I wandered the crowded hallways.

Considering that there were no longer “health-checks,” my concerns surrounding COVID were certainly not eased. Awkwardly set up rooms advocating for social distancing offered some reassurance, yet clearly made collaboration a bit challenging. Staff continued to preach about social distancing and mask requirements, yet we all knew that this was flying above many students’ heads.

But through teamwork and accountability, perhaps there is hope for keeping everyone safe at school.

All I can say is that the first day was bittersweet. Rather than jumping straight into learning, Newport chose to focus on student well-being and community. Each graduating class had an opportunity to participate in outdoor, socially-distanced class bonding, and some were offered tours.

This time of connection was something that many of us students have lacked for a while. However, at times I did feel that perhaps my safety was the price I had to pay for such socializing activities.

With classes being a short and sweet time of fifteen minutes, the focus of community and getting to know one another continued throughout the day.

I’m grateful to be part of a community in which well-being and connection are beginning to be held at a higher value, especially in times like these. 

—Lauren Kirkpatrick, senior at Newport High School

Hand sanitizer was ‘everywhere’ but it felt like the first day of school

Editor's Note: The Seattle Times is publishing dispatches from local families, teachers and school staff about their experiences during this back-to-school season.

On Tuesday, we opened our doors to all our students for the first day back to full-time in-person learning. Non-classroom staff were busy all morning helping students at arrival to get their breakfast and find their teachers. Above all, we were making sure our kids knew how excited we were to see them. Finally, at about 10 a.m., students were all in class, and the day began.  

Throughout the day, classes were seen moving about the campus with their teachers, learning where their recess would be and how lunch would work this year. Teachers were teaching expectations, and non-classroom staff were supporting wherever needed. As the school psychologist, I was working for much of the day with various staff to make sure our new students with disabilities were having their needs met and that everyone who needed to know about these new students got the information.

The next thing we all knew, it was time for dismissal. We helped hand children off to the correct car at parent pick-up and made sure kids got on the right bus. All and all, it felt like the first day of school. Yes, there were masks. Yes, lunch and recess were socially distanced. And yes, hand sanitizer was EVERYWHERE. But emotionally, it was all the excitement of the first day of school, pandemic or no pandemic. 

—Carrie Suchy, school psychologist in the Franklin Pierce School District
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Students pose for pictures on the first day of school

Send your photos from the first day of school to edlab@seattletimes.com, and we may feature them in our live updates.

—Michelle Baruchman

'No easy task,' elementary principal says about preparing children for safe school environment

Before school began this morning, staff at Parkwood Elementary in Shoreline were doing rounds. Some wore neon vests and some had long-range radios on hand as they made sure children wore their masks and knew exactly where to go.

Preparing for the first day of school is intense even under normal circumstances, said Ann Torres, Parkwood Elementary principal. And this year it took months of extra preparation to make sure children would arrive to a safe environment.

“We fully recognize that a lot of our student body hasn't been there for a year and a half,” Torres said.

It was a matter of securing personal protective equipment, organizing traffic flow, lunch time, recess and training educators to keep children socially distanced but engaged at the same time.

“No easy task at times,” Torres said. “But you can't expect kids to automatically know things that you don't teach them.”

The kindergartners who attended kindergarten camp two weeks ago have some familiarity with what this unusual school year will look like, Torres said.

About 62 Parkwood kindergarteners will begin classes Friday, two days after their peers. Families with kids starting kindergarten will be having one-on-one meetings with their children’s teacher so they know what to expect, Torres said.

“We’ve gone through safety plans many times,” she said. “We’re ready.”

While the Shoreline School District is not offering an online school format for families, that might be revisited if the need calls for it, Torres said.

—Daisy Zavala

State superintendent’s emergency rule will penalize Washington schools not complying with mask, vaccine requirements

Washington school districts that “willfully” violate state COVID-19 health mandates are at risk of losing state funding, the state’s top school official said Wednesday, but they will be given at least two chances to come into compliance.

Chris Reykdal, state superintendent of public instruction, filed an emergency rule outlining the penalties for school districts that fail to comply with Washington’s COVID-19 health measures, including the statewide mask mandate and the vaccine requirement for school employees. His office announced the penalty for districts that don’t follow state rules in July.

School districts that “willfully” don’t follow thehealth and safety requirements are at risk of having state funding withheld, Reykdal said.

“These safety measures work, and they are not at the discretion of local school boards or superintendents,” Reykdal said in a notice sent Wednesday to school district officials.

Read the full story here.

—Amanda Zhou
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Breaking the ice in Bellevue

If there’s one thing that separates a first day of school in the pandemic from the rest, it’s the unusual combination of both excitement and quiet from the students during the first few days.

As they designed their own name tags Wednesday morning, first graders in Arwa Nasser’s class at Stevenson Elementary School in Bellevue barely made a peep.

“Do they know they can talk even when they have their masks on?” said Anissa Bashey, the school’s principal, jokingly as she walked through the rectangular tables in the classroom, chatting with the kids.

The first week is typically reserved as a way to bring students and teachers closer to each other, and that task becomes all the more important in a pandemic, when health protocols create a constant negotiation of space between students.

Nasser and the school staff say they plan to spend the time “community building” the kids, and bringing back the traditions that made school fun.

Most kids in the 18,000-student school district have come back for in-person classes this fall, with 500 choosing to enroll in a virtual academy. At the helm of the district this year is a new, seasoned superintendent, Art Jarvis, who began in July after his predecessor stepped down.

He arrived at Stevenson to help with one of the first community-building activities: ringing an old bell affixed to the school’s front lawn to mark the start of the year.

About an hour after school began, the staff brought students out in phases, lining them up on the grass and motioning for them to stick their arms out at their sides to keep proper distance. Two staff members put on the school mascot costumes, a bright yellow star and an astronaut suit, which invited frantic waving and jumping from the students.

Jarvis, who has been a superintendent in the state for 34 years, looked out on the lawn as the tots assembled, listening to a welcome message delivered in both English and Spanish.

“I can picture somewhere in the community there’s a family taking a deep breath,” Jarvis said.

—Dahlia Bazzaz

South Seattle elementary school adjusts school day for health and safety needs

Students are lined up 6 feet apart by grade outside of Wing Luke Elementary in South Seattle. Students between first grade and fifth grade are starting their first day. Next week, kindergarteners and other younger students will start. 

The school is brand new and opened for hybrid learning earlier this year. 

Last night, parents were told how the first day would work: How far apart students will stand while waiting to enter the building, what lunchtime will look like, where to pick up and drop off students. Yesterday, the school also held a drive-through event where parents could pick up information on who their teachers would be. 

Right at the front of the school is a table with a box of sanitizing supplies and children's and adult masks.

Porsha Fields stands with her son, Toney Davis, who is nine and a half and doing a split between fourth and fifth grade this year. He wears a grey camouflage sweatshirt that matches his shoes. 

Davis is a very social child, she said, and the year of virtual learning was tough. Fields said she had to supervise the learning of three children. 

It’s going to be hard to recognize friends with their masks on, Davis said. Luckily, he knows their outfits pretty well. 

Marcelle Baldwin takes a picture of her daughter, Aveline, outside the school. Baldwin is carrying a box of individually packaged Goldfish crackers for the class. Last night, Aveline, who is starting first grade, packed her lunch and backpack and laid out her outfit, including brand new shoes. 

Phat Chien, who has two boys starting in first and third grade, said he feels excited for his kids to meet their teacher and see their friends again. But the ongoing pandemic is still in his mind, he said. 

“Hopefully everybody will be safe,” he said. 

Eleonore Mali stands from a distance watching her daughter, who is starting second grade, wait in line. They walked to school this morning from their home a block away. Her daughter attended school in-person last year in Belgium without masks and their family learned how to live with the risks of catching coronavirus. 

“They just learn so much interacting with their peers,” she said. 

However, she said she thinks Seattle Public Schools has been organized and clear about health and safety measures. 

Things will be different this year, Wing Luke Principal Carol Mendoza said. 

For one thing, there are six lunch periods over two hours and a rotating set of spaces that students can dine, depending on the weather. There’s an outdoor patio, a cafeteria where windows and doors can be open and the gymnasium.

Parents have been told to pack a rain jacket for their kids since on misty days, they’ll still be dining outdoors. 

Lunch bags will be grab and go and ideally, students will put their masks back on between bites of food, she said. 

“We’ll see how that goes, especially with our youngest learners. We’re going to be welcoming  3-year-olds in a week,” she said.

None of the students in the school are old enough to be vaccinated, she said.

Parent visits will also no longer be as casual, Mendoza said. Anyone who is not a student entering the building must be vaccinated and has to go through an attestation process outside, she said. Volunteers and parents can only also visit if they’ve made an appointment. Zoom meetings are still available, she said. 

—Amanda Zhou

Teachers shepherd elementary students toward their classrooms

"OK, that was pretty good," Principal Sandy Klein said Wednesday morning after dozens of teachers and staff ushered about 600 students into Margaret Mead Elementary School in the Lake Washington School District. 

This year's bus and drop-off process leveraged three of the school's driveways and a baseball diamond-sized courtyard near the front of the building to help channel students into their class lines at a physical distance safe enough for returning to school during a pandemic.

Families gave their hugs and said their goodbyes outside the school gates. Teachers and staff, like air traffic controllers, then directed children to where each teacher's name and grade was posted on a numbered and color-coded sign.

"I'm excited. I'm so happy to be back," said Monica Macri, as she led her line of energetic, masked and backpack-wearing fourth-graders toward their designated entrance. 

"Honestly, besides wearing a mask, it feels like a totally regular school year," she said.

—Jenn Smith
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Kids enjoy a physically-distant recess

Recess is alive and kicking at Margaret Mead Elementary. Teacher Jaime Knott walked her first graders to the school’s play field, where the kids ran toward their activity of choice: soccer field, slides, basketball court. Students stay masked and are asked to stay 3 feet apart, although some venture closer to chat above the din or to go in to steal a ball. It was the first  — and a necessary  — break in the school day, Knott said. “It’s important for their mental health to let them play.” (Jenn Smith / The Seattle Times)

—Jenn Smith

Another strange year of school begins for Seattle-area kids, this time in person

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.

Read the full story here.

—Dahlia Bazzaz

Relief, anxiety for some parents sending their children to elementary school

Students began arriving at Parkwood Elementary in Shoreline even before the first school bell rang at 8:35 a.m. In 15 minutes, classes would begin.

Parents shouted “I love you” and “Have a good day” to their children, who cheerfully lined up with their classmates, their backpack keychains jingling.

Although worries about COVID-19 remain, parents were relieved at the staff’s approach to safety measures as they dropped their children off.

Third-grader Emily was the first one up Wednesday morning at 7 a.m. sharp, an unusual sight, said parents Jackie and Dino DiGangi.

The DiGangis packed medical supplies for both Emily and their son Logan, who will be starting his first in-person school year after finishing kindergarten virtually last year.

The pair made sure both their children were aware of the pandemic and why they needed to wear a mask. But despite finding comfort in Seattle’s high vaccination rate and school safety measures, some anxiety was still palpable for the DiGangis.

“As a parent I’m still concerned,” Jackie said, citing a recent report of the first COVID-19-related child death at Seattle Children's Hospital.

The family decided to send their children back to school after a year of online learning, which both children seemed to enjoy.

“But they were ready to be back, ” Jackie said.

—Daisy Zavala
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High school's relationship-building days should help ease start of year, student says

Editor's Note: The Seattle Times is publishing dispatches from local families, teachers and school staff about their experiences during this back-to-school season.

Heading back to school in the fall is always met with mixed emotions: mourning the end of summer, anticipating catching up with friends, nervousness about classes and excitement for the new year. With COVID added to the mix, the return to school this year is especially difficult.

Given this year’s unique circumstances, Sammamish High School in the Bellevue School District has opted for a non-traditional return to school. Rather than jumping in with seven periods a day, students will be placed in mixed-grade groups facilitated by 2 to 3 staff members for the first three days of school. In their groups, students will participate in activities focused on building relationships and fostering a school community.

The first three days will also include schoolwide assemblies, spirit activities and trainings so that students are ready to start academic work after Labor Day.

While the change to the normal routine will be challenging, it should be a good way to ease into the school year.

—Maya Gheewala, a junior at Sammamish High School

Does your kid's classroom need an air purifier? Here's how you can make one yourself

With the delta variant surging across the U.S., and the new school year is beginning, many people are looking to make the classroom environment as safe as possible. Experts say one key consideration should be indoor air quality.

It's not a new issue – indeed, there have long been calls to improve school ventilation and filtration – but it's now an urgent issue. Some teachers and parents are so concerned that they are turning to a homemade contraption called the Corsi-Rosenthal Box.

Don Blair, a citizen scientist in the Boston area, has been pulling together resources on a website and making step-by-step instructions to help parents and teachers build this box.

The idea is simple: The fan sucks air through the filters, effectively cleaning it of particles the virus might be floating along on. Experts say filters with a so-called MERV 13 rating or better are ideal.

Read the full story on NPR.

—Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR

One teacher’s after-school activity: building air purifiers to keep classrooms COVID-19 free

Editor's Note: The Seattle Times is publishing dispatches from local families, teachers and school staff about their experiences during this back-to-school season.

I am concerned about how the more contagious delta variant is going to affect our school year. I have been reading headlines in the news about increased child hospitalizations, a pediatric COVID-19 death in Seattle, and an unvaccinated teacher taking their mask off to read aloud, infecting half their students with COVID-19 in California. This is not the “return to normalcy” that I envisioned for this school year back in June. 

On the first day of school, we are having an open house-style orientation for families and students outdoors in front of the school. I plan to greet my students and their families and share my middle school science class syllabus. In between visits, I’ll plan lessons for next week when we start our regular schedule after Labor Day.

Another item on my to-do list this week is to construct Corsi-Rosenthal air purifiers for each of my classrooms using box fans, cardboard, duct tape and four Merv 13 air filters. I am trying to do everything I can to reduce COVID-19 transmission in my classroom. I am vaccinated, will wear an N-95 mask, eat lunch in my car, and use the air purifiers to keep my classroom air as COVID-19 free as it can be. 

While teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging, I learned a lot of new skills when I was forced to teach remotely over Zoom. It was kind of like playing basketball with my weak hand. Now that our school is back to our normal schedule, I feel like I’ll be more effective and efficient in my face-to-face time with students. One silver lining of the pandemic moving forward is that teachers and  students may better appreciate the time they have together in class, where in the past we may have taken it for granted. 

—William Baur, middle school science teacher at River HomeLink in Battle Ground
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Seattle drivers, watch out: School-zone cameras are back as students return to schools

With this strange year of school beginning in the Seattle area, the city is bringing back school-zone speed cameras to monitor cars as they drive past children crossing roads to get to class.

Seattle has cameras near 14 schools to enforce the 20 mph speed limit in school zones, and speeders face a $237 fine.

Here are the schools near where cameras will be operating.

—Daisy Zavala

For families of children in special education, ‘a whole new set of anxieties exist’

Editor's Note: The Seattle Times is publishing dispatches from local families, teachers and school staff about their experiences during this back-to-school season. 

As the parent of a 16-year-old with intellectual disabilities, it goes without saying that every school year starts with a fair amount of trepidation and fear. Will teachers and peers really see who my kid is?  Will they connect with her in meaningful ways? Will the academic supports meet her needs? 

This year, after 18 months of remote and hybrid schooling, a whole new set of anxieties exist. Just setting foot inside a crowded building is a stretch for her muscle memory. I’m nervous about COVID safety precautions, her academic regression, and helping her manage nervous feelings. Social skills such as active listening, eye contact, and appropriate personal space are all challenges for my daughter. And while I believe that wearing masks is an important and essential part of keeping our school safe, it also creates a challenge for her to hear people and interact.

On Tuesday, my sophomore visited her school, Nathan Hale High School, and some of my fears were alleviated. Since parents were not permitted in the building, she met up with other friends from her special education classroom and they picked up their schedules, computers, and Orca cards with the help of a kind peer who volunteered to show them where to go. I witnessed a palpable sense of relief from her afterwards. It was good to walk those halls and see her teachers and friends. School provides belonging and safety for my sensitive kid.

I have been frustrated with the lack of school district communication about how schools will accommodate our special education students. Today was only a success because us parents provided the scaffolding and made sure that our kids connected at a time that they really needed community. I’ll take that win for now.

—Tiffany Werner, mother of a sophomore who attends Nathan Hale High in Seattle

Seattle Public Schools says some buses will be late

Seattle Public Schools' Transportation Department sent an email to some parents at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday alerting them that their bus route would run one hour late Wednesday, the first day of school.

"We apologize for the interruption of your student’s yellow bus service. There is a nationwide bus driver shortage, and we are working with our yellow bus provider to hire more drivers and reduce service interruptions," the email said.

Families were encouraged to make other plans to get their kids to school Wednesday and for "the first weeks of school."

—Michelle Baruchman
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First day back to school leaves some parents feeling ‘tired and forgotten’

The Seattle Times is publishing dispatches from local families, teachers and school staff about their experiences during this back-to-school season. 

Usually I love the first day of school. This year I just feel tired and forgotten. My second grader has spent the majority of his school experience learning through a screen. Challenging as this was, we were willing to do this as a community to keep him, other children, and our communities safe from a global pandemic. 

Up until today, our family has been privileged enough to keep our kids out of indoor spaces entirely to avoid risk, foregoing childcare in favor of safety. But now, after a year and a half of this exhausting juggling act as parents, we are now being asked to send our most precious, our most vulnerable back to school into an untested unknown: full capacity schools, a raging wave of a more contagious COVID-19 variant, fewer safety and mitigation measures, and no available vaccine for our youngest kids. 

Our district has left important COVID mitigation measures up to individual schools, abdicating their responsibility to ensure all students, at all schools, have the layered safety measures they deserve. We lack a universal outdoor lunch strategy, regular COVID testing, and have only a limited remote option with hundreds on the waitlist.

While principals and teachers are doing the very best they can, our systems and policies are falling short. I tear up just thinking about the mountains our school has moved to support our kids and families. We are so lucky. And yet, it should not be left to luck. I’m angry because families are being forgotten, left behind and with few choices -- none of them good. Our kids and families are doing their part to keep society safe -- in many cases at enormous personal cost in terms of mental and socioemotional health. Can our policymakers offer them the same protection in return?

—Lauren Hipp, mother of a 7-year-old at Graham Hill Elementary in Seattle

Back to school, but not back to ‘normal’

There will be masks, mandatory vaccines (for teachers and staff) and inevitably, a lot of first-day-back jitters.

But as hundreds of thousands of Washington students return to classrooms this week, several of the strict safety mandates that became etched into public consciousness last year are going away. Six feet of social distance? That was loosened to 3 feet last spring. And now, social distancing is only a recommendation, not a requirement. Hybrid scheduling has largely disappeared. And although removing masks during school hours is prohibited — students and staff are allowed to take them off to eat lunch.

The Seattle Times has spent the past week checking in with experts about the safety measures families and teachers can expect this school year. 

Here is where you can find more information about the delta variant and picking the best mask for kids. 

For details about the state’s vaccine mandate, online education and outbreaks on school grounds, click here

—Hannah Furfaro

Share your back-to-school photos with us

We want to see your picture-perfect back-to-school photos — whether you're in the classroom or at your dining room table.

Email your snapshots to educationlab@seattletimes.com. Make sure you have permission to share the photo and send it in the highest quality format you can.

—Michelle Baruchman
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Catch up on the latest back-to-school news

  • Lunchtime is one of the riskiest parts of the school day when students will be maskless and will want to socialize. Here are some of the ways Washington districts are coordinating logistics to keep students and staff safe.
  • What happens to kids' brains when they experience early life stress? Researchers are racing to answer that question after an unusually high number of adolescents reported symptoms of anxiety and depression during the pandemic.
  • The pandemic is expected to have created setbacks for kids with disabilities and those living in poverty, who didn’t have a computer, a reliable internet connection or a workspace to learn at home. Here's a rundown of research about what is most effective to catch those students up.
  • ‘Let the virus’ run its course, a Seattle-area school district official said on Facebook. The response prompted concern from Issaquah parents, who said the statements made them question how well the district will implement protections against COVID-19.
—Michelle Baruchman

Connect with us

We'd like to hear about your experiences during the first days of school in Washington as students return full time and in person for the first time in more than a year. What went well? What challenges did you face? What are your concerns? How are you feeling? Tell us below.

—Michelle Baruchman