On first-grade teacher Emily Gunn’s first day back to the classroom, she jokingly wished many of her fellow teachers a “Merry Kid Christmas” — a term she used because, she said, “it felt like the night before Christmas.”
“You’re just really, really excited to see all the students,” she said.
Monday was a milestone for elementary students around the region. In the Seattle and Northshore school districts, it marked the first day back for in-person learning. In the Highline district, where Gunn teaches, students have been returning to school in phases by grade level since the beginning of March; Monday signaled the start of the first full week of in-person classes for all Highline elementary grades.
Statewide, Monday was also the deadline for all K-12 districts to offer students in kindergarten through fifth grade some sort of in-person learning, per Gov. Jay Inslee’s directive.
Many other neighboring districts — including Bellevue, Tacoma, Issaquah and Edmonds — have had a least a few weeks, if not months, to acclimate to a hybrid learning model.
At Seahurst Elementary in Burien, where Gunn teaches, there are two in-person classroom sessions, morning and afternoon, on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, each about two hours long. Wednesdays are completely remote. When students aren’t in classrooms, they’re given math and literacy assignments to work on at home.
As Gunn started her afternoon session on Monday, she asked her 10 students — all wearing colorful masks — to share what they did that weekend, which they did enthusiastically.
“I watched TV!” one student beamed. Another said she had gone fishing with her family. Another went to the movies. As they shared, Gunn interjected occasionally to remind them of the differences in verb tenses.
“There’s always a little bit of jitters on the adult part, but every child — no tears,” Seahurst Principal Terry Holtgraves said Monday. “They’re just so glad to be back at school. It brought tears to all of our eyes.”
At Seattle’s Rainier View Elementary School, in a neighborhood bordering the southeast end of the city limits, Monday morning drop-off was frosty and sparse, as school officials welcomed elementary students back to classrooms. Just one small school bus was parked outside the building in the half-hour before the 8 a.m. bell time.
As students and parents arrived by foot or car, the school’s staff greeted them with questions, asking if they had completed health forms required to enter the building, then ushered them toward queues of students lined up waiting to enter the school.
“You’re in the double digits now? Wow!” said the school’s principal, Anitra Pinchback-Jones, taking note of a birthday milestone as she leaned down to speak to two girls with long, black hair and matching backpacks.
A few yards away, another school employee explained the health forms to parents. “Do you speak Vietnamese?” she asked one student, beckoning her over to parents.
Just over half of about 240 students at the school — 70% of whom are low-income — opted for in-person instruction at the school, Pinchback-Jones said. That’s about the same as the districtwide average — 58% of families the district surveyed opted into in-person instruction. At Loyal Heights Elementary in Ballard, where 7.9% of students are low-income, 87% of families opted for in-person learning.
Some families have pointed to the complex schedule for elementary-school students, which has them in school for about three hours a day, four days a week, as a reason for keeping their kids learning remotely. The district also says it isn’t providing transportation for students who aren’t legally entitled to it due to a driver shortage with its main school-bus contractor, First Student.
Several parents who dropped their kids off at Rainier View noted that they were able to because they had schedule flexibility.
“Thank god for grandparents,” said Marlena Parks, who stood outside the school with her son Bijan, who is in first grade and says he wants to “play and learn new stuff.”
Parks said she had been on the fence about sending her son back, for health reasons. But as she read more about the district’s safety precautions, she said she became more comfortable with the idea.
“Someone has to stick their foot into the pool,” said Parks. “What did we talk about how to be safe?”
“Wash my hands, and stay 6 feet apart,” Bijan replied, his Spiderman mask wrinkling.
Another mother at drop-off, Rachel Holmstrom, said she was able to make the schedule work for her son Javian because she’s not employed at the moment, and “he needs it.” She said she would use the window of time before pickup to go grocery shopping.
“A couple of hours,” she laughed. “Better than nothing.”
Seahurst’s drop-off process worked similarly to Rainier View’s, with families checking in with school officials before kids could go inside.
Once inside, they’ve learned to adjust to several physical changes to campus, done in preparation for students’ return.
Long lines of blue tape now run down the hallways, letting kids know which side to walk on, and hand-sanitizer dispensers stand at each entrance. There’s also signage around campus to guide students and teachers, plexiglass shields at larger tables in classrooms and dots on the floor showing kids where to stand.
The school has also implemented strict cleaning schedules, said Holtgraves, the principal. Custodians clean the bathrooms every hour, and sanitize all desks, chairs, doorknobs and other “high-touch points” between the morning and afternoon sessions.
Despite months of preparation, there are some challenges. Gunn, who’s been teaching at Seahurst for three years, only has students in class for about two hours. She’s had to be creative in integrating as much learning into each activity as possible.
For example, “during math, when you’re reading a story problem, you’re also calling attention to all the components of literacy there,” such as reading comprehension and sentence structure, she said.
“[They’re] things I’ve naturally done before, but now I’m much more aware and intentional about those things than I was before just because you don’t have enough time,” Gunn said.
Her students also miss socializing. “They really, really want to talk and be near each other,” she said.
Colleen Farwell, who teaches fourth grade at Seahurst, said her kids — who just returned to school buildings last Thursday — are still getting comfortable with each other, so she’s been opening the day with a few icebreakers and games.
“Right now it’s about getting … structures in place, getting kids comfortable with each other and making school feel joyful and fun so that after spring break, we can come back and learn as much as we can,” Farwell said.
She added, “But I’m super happy to be back in person. I’ll never take it for granted again.”
Back at Rainier View Monday morning, Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau, who is leaving her post at the end of the month, stopped by to speak to reporters. She, along with several other superintendents in the Puget Sound region, had been more reticent about reopening buildings in the fall. Her tone shifted last December, when she presented a plan to the School Board and staff for reopening — though it was much more limited than the governor’s edict.
“In this pandemic environment, there are no bad choices,” she said in a response to a question about parents who aren’t able to bring their kids to school.
“Today is my birthday,” she added. “There is no better gift than to see our students back in person.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of the Seahurst Elementary principal. It has since been updated to reflect the correction.