Campuses across Yakima School District were quiet Wednesday morning — at least compared to the first day of school any other year.

Even as they began a year of online instruction, some teachers were in elementary school buildings as early as 6:30 a.m. as they prepared to welcome their students to class for the first time, said Superintendent Trevor Greene. The vast majority chose to teach from their campus classroom, he said.

No matter the grade, all 16,000 K-12 students were welcomed via video calls from their teachers.

“It was sad it wasn’t the usual, which is opening that door and seeing them lined up with parents in tears and kids excited to say, ‘Bye, mom,’” said Cindy Bañuelos, a kindergarten teacher at McKinley Elementary School. “But once we went live, that enthusiasm — that feeling of excitement was there. So I might have an empty classroom, but we were all here in spirit.”

Over the next few weeks, students across the state will return to school — most of them learning online as the coronavirus continues to deliver months of large-scale societal disruptions. In the Puget Sound region, many districts begin the 2020-21 school year next week. Seattle Public Schools will resume on Friday, Sept. 4.

Earlier this month, Yakima School District led county districts in making the announcement that school would start remotely this year — a call the district made before health officials issued public recommendations for school reopening.

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That same day, Gov. Jay Inslee recommended that students in high-risk counties — or those with more than 75 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over a two-week period — not return to school buildings. The Yakima Health District eventually recommended remote learning.

The county had 186 new cases per 100,000 people from Aug. 5-18. It’s an improvement from earlier this summer.

All 14 other Yakima County public districts announced they, too, would be going remote. Local private schools have chosen to test the water with in-person learning, following strict health and safety measures and with options for remote learning in some cases.

While Wednesday was the first day of school for the county’s largest district, a handful of schools have already resumed while others won’t have their first day until well into September.

A new start

This year, the Yakima School District is ramping up online learning, which officials say will continue for at least 18 weeks.

There are no more paper learning packets. The district has transitioned to a 1-1 model, meaning every student has their own device to learn from. It is also rolling out a broadband effort that will expand the protected district Wi-Fi connections to reach everywhere within district limits within the next few months. And whatever is taught in a normal classroom setting should be able to translate to remote learning, district officials said.

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“I want people to realize you don’t change what happens online. You adapt,” said Arnie Lewis, the district’s new director of distance and accelerated learning.

Lewis has been working to train staff on the district’s core learning platforms. He has also uploaded training videos and conversation platforms in both English and Spanish to the district website so students and families can better navigate those tools.

In Bañuelos’ Google Classroom, kindergarten students started the day by talking about their feelings. Then she read them a picture book: “When Virona the Corona Came to Town.” She said it was a friendly way to explain to them why they can’t be in class in person right now.

Brad Schultz, a third-grade teacher at Nob Hill Elementary, chose to teach from home. He shared a slideshow with videos introducing himself and did several activities to help get to know his students. His students’ first assignment of the year is to navigate through Google Classroom to a link where they can make their own introduction video, which will be shared in class Thursday.

Both teachers said they plan to ease into academic topics. Schultz calls it building up academic stamina. He said by the fourth week of school, his students should be in the swing of things and learning content across all subjects.

Ironing out the bumps

Unlike during the spring, this fall, teachers are expected to track attendance. On the first day back, some said it was spotty.

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Schultz had 20 of 24 students join the class video call Wednesday morning and expected two more to be present Thursday once they picked up district-issued laptops.

Bañuelos had 14 out of 23 students. She planned to call each absent student’s parent to see if technology or time schedules might have been a barrier and if she could help.

District support staff also helped. At McKinley, Principal Amanda Voorhees said paraprofessionals and office staff were arranging parent-teacher calls, identifying attendance barriers, troubleshooting technology problems and talking parents through learning platforms.

There were some glitches. Some staff struggled to adjust to a new ID system to recognize students picking up bulk meal packages. And internet connectivity issues on some campuses created extra stress for teachers as they prepared to log on with students. Some who had come to campus chose to teach from home as a result.

“Those first-day glitches,” Greene said. “When you have a system that serves 16,000 students, there’s going to be a hiccup now and then, and that was a mild one.”

While learning is starting remotely, district administrators speak optimistically of a later pivot to in-person learning if health conditions improve.