Southwood Elementary teacher Jody Emerson hands each of her students a piece of paper. She tells them to write the numbers one through 26, each on a new line, for an assignment.
The kids catch on quick that morning. “It’s a spelling thing,” one student calls out confidently. “It’s obviously that.”
The warm summer air pours into the room that Thursday, and the bright-eyed third-graders are full of jokes and energy, only on their second week of school. Outside, other students walk out to or come back from recess.
Word-by-word, line-by-line, the kids dutifully write down each word Emerson calls out, from “fan” to “crawl” to “third.”
At “third,” one of her students lets out an exasperated sigh.
“Can we just write ‘3,’ ?” he asks.
“Nope,” Emerson responds.
It’s a reminder that even when the world looks different, a kid is still a kid.
Students across the Plateau returned to school the beginning of this month, starting a year defined by both hope and anxiety. School districts nationwide scrambled last year to respond to the onslaught of the coronavirus, experimenting with online, in-person and hybrid-style classes.
This year, Washington schools forged ahead with all-in-person lessons, fortified by masking and social distancing rules set by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. The State Health Department decided that school this year must open for full time in-person learning, along with a few rules:
• School personnel, students and visitors must wear masks indoors at K-12 facilities and on school busses.
• Three feet of space should be maintained between students in class whenever possible.
• Masking is universally required for spectators of indoor K-12 sport events, with family units separated into distanced groups. Under a broader state rule, any outdoor events with 500 or more attendees must require masks. (Both districts are livestreaming many of their games.)
In both districts, masks or other face coverings are required for everyone while indoors at K-12 facilities, but students have opportunities for relief. The districts say they can spread kids out enough during recess to not require masks during that time, and kids have opportunities for shorter mask breaks outside when they need them.
Both Enumclaw and White River are back to school five days a week for all grades, though White River switched back to full-time in Spring last year. That doesn’t mean there’s no excitement in the air for the new year though, said White River Assistant Superintendent Scott Harrisonn.
“Those kick-off events, freshman first day, sixth grader first day, where they come in and learn about the school … all the games and the sports, all of those things have been really important for our students,” Harrison said. “So many of them are really connected to school for their social-emotional well being. What students get from being in those sports, activities and clubs is really critical.”
So far, both districts have recorded positive COVID cases among students and staff since the school year began, but very few of them have been shown through contact tracing to have spread within the schools, according to officials and the districts’ online COVID dashboards.
“Schools are not islands, of course,” Harrison said, and so it should not be surprising that positive cases show up.
Over the pandemic’s course, “our positive cases have really mirrored the case counts in the community to a pretty general degree,” Harrison said.
As of Aug. 15, 24 cases had been confirmed at Enumclaw schools (2 among staff, 22 among students.) All but two were determined to have started outside of school, and the other two were considered “inconclusive,” meaning contact tracing couldn’t determine where the cases originated.
In that same time frame, 81 cases have been confirmed at White River schools, though only one has originated at school, specifically at Foothills Elementary. The local health department, not the school district, makes the determination that a case originated inside or outside the school, Harrison said.
Several years ago, the district installed microphones and speakers in the classrooms to help students hear teachers better. The timing was fortuitous – Emerson, wearing a sturdy KN95 mask, is able to enunciate to her classroom without having to compromise her mask.
White River has those features in most classrooms as well, thanks to a voter-approved $98 million bond passed in 2016. A technology levy passed in 2014 helped the district duck and weave with the punches of the pandemic.
“The foresight they had to approve a technology levy that same year allowed us to pivot seamlessly to distance learning,” Harrison said. “It was critical to our success. That was a huge thanks to our voters.”
Emerson’s is one of 16 classrooms at Southwood Elementary, attended by kindergarten through fifth graders. Her students on Sept. 10 learned about kindness, writing, and how to handle a fire drill.
Last year was a lot of changing, pivoting and readjusting, Emerson said, as staff tried to figure out the right balance of in- and out-of-school learning.
But her overall strategy is simple: “It’s all about the kids, and what’s best for them.”
Logan and Lorelai, two of the students in her classroom, said they were happy and excited to be back in class.
“It’s just easier for me to focus, because at home I have so many other things to do,” Lorelai said. “I have four older brothers, but they’re kind of annoying.”
There’s a difference across the board in her student’s mood and focus in class compared to online, Emerson said.
“They want to be with their friends,” Emerson said. “They want to be in class. They’re more engaged. … It’s been good to get back, and a pleasure seeing them back in class.”
This year, Lorelai is moving up to a new level of her dance program, and Logan will be playing baseball. He’s angling to be a pitcher.
“They signed me up for minors, because they didn’t want me trying to hit against fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth graders,” he said. “I was like, this is brutal!”
Lighthearted moments abound. The kids were so excited about the fire drill that morning that when Emerson said the principal was about a minute from announcing it over the intercom, they spontaneously began a 60-second group countdown.
“Every day’s a funny moment,” Emerson said with a laugh. “That’s just teaching kids. You never know. … They’re awesome. Even something like counting, they all just went along with it.”