Outside Wing Luke Elementary in Seattle on Wednesday morning, students lined up, spaced 6 feet apart. They were ready to step into a new school year — and a new era of pandemic learning.

Before they entered school doors, students and staff walked past a table stocked with sanitizing supplies and masks. Parents were told to pack a rain jacket for their kids since, even on misty days, they’ll often eat lunch outdoors.

The school’s principal, Carol Mendoza, rattled off a long list of other safety measures. Students on her campus are among the most vulnerable to infection: None of them are old enough to be vaccinated. 

Nerves about the new phase of the pandemic — one shaded by the threat of the more virulent delta variant — were on full display. A father dropping off his two young boys said the coronavirus is still on his mind. Another parent said she’s learned to live with the idea of risk. She and her family lived in Belgium last year, where masks weren’t required indoors.

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. Among all schools nationwide, Seattle-area classrooms were some of the first to close, and the last to reopen during the pandemic.

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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. Some parents said they waited for hours on the phone Tuesday, hoping to get through to the district’s transportation department.

A bus driver shortage is to blame, the school district’s email said. On Wednesday morning, Seattle Schools 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.”

Outside Nathan Hale High, the sidewalk was packed with masked teenagers as Tiffany Werner, the mother of a sophomore in special education, looked on. Werner and her daughter, who has an intellectual disability, had role played many scenarios that might come up on the first day of school.

“I imagined all the words we exchanged about today floating around her head like thought bubbles as she confidently walked toward the school with her head held high and her mask in place,” Werner said. “And all I could muster was a small prayer: May this place hold her gently, teach her well and keep her safe.”

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.

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Students, thrilled to see their friends again, even if they had trouble recognizing them behind masks.

Teachers, skills sharpened after months of remote learning, but nervous the virus will seed outbreaks in their classrooms.

Parents, relieved their children won’t suffer more months behind screens, but on edge as they sent their young ones into the new and the unknown. 

Back to desks

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?” joked Anissa Bashey, the school’s principal, as she walked through the rectangular tables in the classroom chatting with the kids. 

In a typical school year, the first week of class commonly includes time to bring students and teachers closer together. That goal is all the more important in a pandemic, when health protocols create a constant negotiation of space between students. 

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Nasser and school staff say they plan to spend the next week bringing back the traditions that made school fun. 

About an hour after school began, staff brought students out in phases, lined them up on the grass and motioned for them to stick their arms out at their sides to measure the proper distance from peers. Two staff members donned school mascot costumes, a bright yellow star and an astronaut suit, inviting frantic waving and jumping from the students. 

Most kids in the 18,000-student Bellevue 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 school’s first community-building activities: ringing an old bell stationed on the school’s front lawn. 

Jarvis, who has been a superintendent at various districts in Washington for 34 years, looked out on the lawn as the kids 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.

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Safety first

Yolanda Evans stood on the sidewalk outside Parkwood Elementary in Shoreline, waving as her 9-year-old daughter Josefina made her way inside. 

“We didn’t get a lot of sleep because of the excitement,” said Evans, who stood among a small crowd of parents and older siblings who’d gathered outside school gates Wednesday morning. 

Josefina had packed her supplies, lunch and everything in between the night before she was set to see her friends again. Like most families in the Puget Sound area, Evans’ children spent last school year learning at home. 

Evans’ 6-year-old missed her first day of school because she was feeling sick.

“If we’re not 100% sure about their health we’ll just err on the side of caution,” Evans said. She had hoped her children would be eligible for a vaccine before school began.

“As parents,” she said, “we’re still terrified of the unknown illness, our kids getting sick.”

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Parkwood Elementary staff in neon vests made sure children wore masks and knew where to go their first day back. This year took months of extra preparation to make sure children would arrive to a safe environment, Principal Ann Torres said.

“You can’t expect kids to automatically know things that you don’t teach them,” she said.

Time to play

Teachers and staff, like air traffic controllers, directed children outside Margaret Mead Elementary in Sammamish on Wednesday morning. 

“I’m so happy to be back,” said Monica Macri, as she led her line of energetic, masked and backpacked fourth-graders toward their designated school entrance. 

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

Getting to this point of relative ease took months of preparation, said Principal Sandy Klein. School administrators spent hours planning logistics with the Lake Washington School District’sadministration and safety committee, Klein said. They led training sessions on social and emotional learning with educators and staff. Parents were invited to question-and-answer nights. Some school staff hopped on the phone to speak with families directly.

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Margaret Mead opened its new building in fall 2019. Six months later, in March 2020, the brand-new classrooms were shuttered. Klein hopes the school can make it through the school year without more closures.

Last week, staff completed training on social and emotional learning geared at helping them support kids as everyone adjusts to new routines and being together after being apart for so long. 

“We work very hard on kindness,” Klein said. “And we know that if we demonstrate kindness to each other and to the students and to the community it builds a positive relationship.”

During morning recess, teacher Jaime Knott walked her first-graders to the school’s play field where the kids ran toward their activity of choice: the soccer field, slides or the basketball court. Students kept their masks on and were asked to stay 3 feet apart, though some ventured closer to chat 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.”