There was no small amount of tears, forgotten passwords and fizzling microphones as tens of thousands of Clark County students returned to the virtual classroom Tuesday.

It was the first day of school for Clark County’s largest school districts, Vancouver and Evergreen public schools, as well as several outlying districts. Teachers and staff welcomed their students back from empty classrooms and home offices as the coronavirus pandemic prevented a return to campus.

These are the stories of teachers, students and staff connecting on a first day of school like no other.

Sisters adjust, look forward to return to classrooms

Three girls, three schools, one household. That’s the reality for the Albrecht home this fall, where daughters Nina, 17, Kira, 15 and Taryn, 13, are stuck at home while their respective schools remain in Distance Learning 2.0.

Nina is a senior at Fort Vancouver High School, but she takes most of her classes through the Running Start program at Clark College, which starts on Sept. 21. Kira and Taryn, meanwhile, spent the day in Zoom meetings with their new teachers and classmates.

“My first day went well, actually,” Kira said. “It was nice to meet some people.”

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The Albrechts are lucky. They had no issues staying connected, and they have enough room at home to stay out of each other’s way. The girls, nevertheless, are looking forward to a return to the classroom.

“My friends usually have the same classes,” said Taryn, an eighth-grade student at McLoughlin Middle School. “We all motivate each other during school because we want to get things done. Since we went to remote, it did decrease my amount of motivation.”

Kira agreed, and added she worries how her learning style will work at a distance.

“I’m more hands on,” she said. “It’s going to be a big change.”

Nina, meanwhile, sees the year ahead as an exciting challenge she hopes will prepare her for college after she graduates.

“Maybe this is a good chance for me to learn the system and time manage, whether it’s online or when I get a job,” she said. “It’s going to be different, so I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

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Science teacher aims for comfortable digital classroom

Erin Lark’s fourth-period class is a virtual menagerie.

The Vancouver iTech Preparatory School science teacher curled up on her patio to teach on the first day of school, joined by her own snoozing dog, Lily, and cat, Bill.

Her students showed off their own animals: There was a pair of birds who were boyfriend and girlfriend, announced one student.

“I’m going to put them on the attendance list,” Lark said.

Also present: A snake, a lizard, dogs, cats and the occasional hamster.

Hey, it’s life sciences. It all counts.

But for Lark, the Educational Service District 112 Regional Teacher of the Year, these conversations have deeper meaning. She’s trying to keep her digital classroom comfortable for students, to help her students feel they can express themselves in a scary time. She encouraged them to use virtual backgrounds, to add profile pictures for days they don’t feel like appearing on live video and to tell their personal stories from home.

“The more ways I make reality, the more students share with me,” she said.

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The thought of missing some cue that one of her 210 students is struggling keeps Lark up at night, she admits. She can’t physically read her students; for now, these meetings and emails are all she has.

Still, Lark is hopeful for a near future when she can see her students again.

“I know a lot of things might feel new, might feel different, but we’re going to get through them together,” Lark told her class.

Advocate for low-income families here to help

Shanna Baird needed pillow cases.

They couldn’t be the white ones already on hand at the Hazel Dell Elementary School Family-Community Resource Center, she said. They’re for a family sleeping in a tent, who had just enrolled in school the day before.

White would show dirt; they’d have to be darker. Navy blue, maybe.

“I just showed up with what they needed,” said Baird, the school’s family-community resource coordinator.

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The first day of school was “a whirlwind” for Baird, who for three years has been helping families at Hazel Dell Elementary School with food, school supplies, housing, clothes and any other family needs. An estimated 65.1 percent of the families in the school are low-income, compared with 50.7 percent in the Vancouver school district at large.

“I just love, support and be a teammate to these families that are struggling, are worried getting through the pandemic,” Baird said. “It’s been crazy.”

The coronavirus pandemic has hit the vulnerable communities Baird serves the hardest. Non-English speaking parents have struggled to connect with their children’s teachers. Undocumented families didn’t qualify for federal support, relying on a patchwork of local services for support.

Low-income families may not have internet access, relying on the school to provide wireless hot spots so their children can access their classes.

Baird is worried about her families, but said she’s ready to face the challenge of supporting them through the pandemic.

“I need to get their basic needs met, and then we’ll get the next steps,” Baird said.

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Evergreen employee focuses on the positives

You take the wins where you can, and for furloughed Evergreen Public Schools bus driver Jodi Cowell, there’s plenty to celebrate.

The school district last week announced the furlough of 475 classified employees, including bus drivers, maintenance workers, paraeducators and other nonteaching staff. Those staff will keep their health benefits and qualify for unemployment, and they could return to work as in-person programs ramp up.

They’re benefits for which Cowell, a mother of four, is grateful. Her two youngest children have autism and receive therapy outside of school. Cowell and family were able to continue those services under the agreement struck between the district and its classified employee union.

“Now our family can thrive and still maintain that normal, again,” she said.

But Cowell misses her students. She misses the daily adventure of climbing into her yellow school bus, of chatting with her families. It’s why she started her career as a bus driver in 2018, after 10 years as a stay-at-home mother.

“Seeing those kids on the first day and seeing the excitement of my new teacher and my new routine, I miss that,” she said.

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Cowell, in her own way, will still be helping students go to school; she spent Tuesday helping her own students connect to virtual learning.

“I’m putting four kids on the Zoom meetings and hoping and praying for the best,” she said.

Technology pro strives to help families connect

The phone at Cascade Middle School was ringing off the hook Tuesday with, predictably, families having technology problems.

Answering the call, in most cases, was Michelle Annett, the school’s teacher-librarian of eight years.

As an Evergreen Public Schools librarian, Annett is the school’s technology expert, helping students use their Chromebooks to connect to coursework. It’s a big job under normal circumstances, even more so when virtual learning is the norm.

Some problems are easy to fix, like the many students who forgot their Chromebook passwords over the summer. Masked students and parents also wandered into the building to troubleshoot more complicated problems, sitting six feet apart while staff worked to connect them.

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Annett is worried. Teachers need help navigating the applications and services the district uses to offer virtual lessons.

She’s heard from families struggling to help their children get online while working themselves.

“I worry their frustration level will be so high they’ll check out,” Annett said between helping families.

Meanwhile, Annett’s assistant is furloughed, then there’s book and material delivery to coordinate with families.

It’s a lot, but Annett urged families who are struggling to connect to call “as much as they want.”

“They’re our No. 1 priority,” she said.

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