DARRINGTON — Riley Nations woke up at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday to watch the sunrise from the fire lookout at North Mountain, about five miles north of Darrington High School.
She and a dozen of her classmates made the trek to commemorate their first day of senior year. They drove about 45 minutes outside of town.
“We walked over a mile to get up there,” Nations said. “It was uphill, too.”
Clouds covered the sky, leaving room for only a hint of pink to show through above the valley they call home. After, parents served them a homemade breakfast of biscuits and gravy.
It’s a tradition to watch the sun come up for incoming seniors in the close-knit town surrounded by mountains. Usually students spend the morning on the campus football field. This year was a little different because of Covid.
Darrington’s school year began Tuesday, one of the earliest of all the school districts in Snohomish County. Teachers and staff met up with students to hand out materials, assignments and computers that morning. Those kinds of meetings are happening through Thursday. Classes are scheduled to start next week.
All 400 of the school district’s elementary through high school students share the same campus, on the east edge of town.
Nations hopes she can come back to school sometime this year, to see her friends, attend pep assemblies and play on varsity sports teams, including volleyball, basketball and softball.
She also lives in an area where there’s no cell phone service or internet access. Last year, that made it difficult to communicate with teachers and complete assignments, her mother Marti Brown said.
“I had to go to town a lot last year to finish school,” Nations said. “I was at the town library and I came here to the school a couple of times to use the WiFi.”
“And I work in town so I would just email the teachers from work,” Brown added. “But it was difficult because I can’t have my children at work with me, so a lot of the questions wouldn’t work out because they weren’t with me, so it wasn’t a good situation.”
They hope this year goes more smoothly. Brown has already talked with school staff to make plans for offline learning at home.
On Tuesday, the mother and daughter met with English teacher Linne Clarke. Nations is going to be in her media literacy class where students are expected to watch movies and write about them.
Nations worried about finding movies without internet or streaming services, even though her parents have a large collection. Many of her favorites are horror movies, she told Clarke. Those aren’t in the lesson plans.
Clarke has been a teacher in Darrington for more than 20 years. She taught all four of her own children, who are now grown. They each graduated from Darrington High School.
When schools shut down abruptly earlier this year, it was chaotic, Clarke said.
“I think now, we need to just say this is what it is and let’s do our very, very best,” she said. “We can still give quality education to our students.”
The hardest part is not seeing her students every day. It has felt as though she’s been in mourning at times.
“I miss them,” she said. “I don’t mean to be emotional, but I just miss them. We miss each other.”
Seven round tables were set up outside Tuesday, where a teacher sat at each to talk with their students.
One of those was math teacher Greg Gorham. This is his first job as a teacher. He started last school year.
“It was pretty wild,” he said. “I was just starting to get into the groove by March.”
At first there was talk of finishing up the school year. Just a few days later they were told schools were shutting down.
Communicating with students was one of the hardest parts, he said.
During his first year of teaching, he had the thought: “It probably will never get worse,” he said.
“That’s a bad way to say that, but I’ve been here once,” he continued. “I’m less nervous about starting the year like this.”
High school principal Cindy Christoferson is looking forward to trying new forms of education, though it may not be under ideal circumstances.
“We get stuck into that traditional school schedule, traditional school style,” she said. “I think it really forces us to think outside the box.”
One main focus in Darrington is making sure students without internet access can be successful, she said.
While the district has provided internet hotspots, they don’t always work depending on where a student lives. Teachers are sending kids in those situations home with paper packets and flashdrives filled with assignments and other materials. Another plan is to use portables on campus as study spaces, where students can use the internet.
About half of Darrington’s student body has reliable internet access at home, Superintendent Buck Marsh said.
“We don’t want students to fall behind,” he said. “We want them to get a good education.”
Tuesday wasn’t a typical first day of school. Campus was quiet as students and teachers briefly went over lesson plans. Everyone wore a face mask.
Tables were set up outside under covered areas. As the day stretched on, the weather warmed up. Clouds clung to Whitehorse Mountain well into the afternoon, towering over the small town.
Stephanie Davey: 425-339-3192; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @stephrdavey.
When classes begin
Public schools in Snohomish County are gearing up for a new year. Here’s when classes begin:
Tuesday Sept. 1
Wednesday Sept. 2
• Granite Falls
• Lake Stevens
Thursday Sept. 3
Tuesday Sept. 8
Wednesday Sept. 9