LAKEWOOD — The first thing one notices when entering a classroom at Lakewood Middle School is, well, how normal it looks.
Seated at desks arranged in three long rows facing their teacher, some of the 15 students scribbled furiously to keep up with their notes. Others stared forward with tired eyes.
Half the seats were empty to leave space for social distancing, but the classroom is more full than it’s been in a year.
The Lakewood School District fully reopened its three elementaries May 3 and its middle school on Monday. For the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, the transition came one month after they moved to a hybrid schedule allowing them two-day-a-week in-person learning.
It is the only public school district in Snohomish County offering in-person instruction five days a week.
“It’s gone really well,” Superintendent Scott Peacock said. “Kids are happy to be back and staff are glad to see them.”
About 85% of students in kindergarten through eighth grades are back on campus, he said. The rest are enrolled in the district’s Online Academy with Edgenuity.
Of the middle school’s 612 students, 539 returned for in-person class, with 73 staying the course of learning remotely, according to district officials.
On Wednesday morning, masks muffled conversations about area and perimeter in Ron Detrick’s geometry class, but the teens appeared engaged all the same. Pencils and spiral notebooks replaced the laptops and virtual calls of not long ago.
Only a few weeks remain of the school year, but Peacock said it was important to rebuild students’ stamina before the real full-time grind of in-person instruction returns in the fall. The district also considered the socio-emotional benefit of students interacting with their peers, even if it is brief, before summer creates another social chasm.
“Students were learning in the hybrid model, but there is no replacement for in-person education,” Peacock said.
School board directors decided April 19 to reopen the elementary and middle schools despite the concern of teachers, bus drivers and parents that the district was moving too fast from the hybrid approach of two-days in-person and three days remote.
At the meeting, they raised concerns about having enough classroom space and individual desks to ensure the 3-foot spacing could be enforced. They also cited concerns about the number of students allowed on buses.
Risa Livingston, the Lakewood Education Association president, said the union didn’t endorse or oppose the decision to reopen fully. She said teachers wanted assurances of being included in ongoing discussions on how to make it successful and safe.
“While Lakewood teachers are enthusiastic to see all our students back together at the same time, there is more the district can do to reassure families and staff that it has real and achievable plans to support safety and equity,” Livingston said. “As we seek to continue to navigate the pandemic, the Lakewood Education Association will continue to work towards serving our students with health, safety, and equity in mind.”
Peacock applauded the teachers’ resolve to get things right.
“There is a shared commitment to make sure we have all the pieces in place to keep our students and our staff safe,” he said.
There have been setbacks.
Two elementary classes had to be shifted back to remote learning last week after students contracted COVID. Though the students became infected outside school, health and safety protocols require quarantining classmates, triggering the reversion to the hybrid model.
Similarly, plans for fully reopening Lakewood High School students got scuttled.
Roughly a dozen students who had been attending a couple days a week under the hybrid model came down with the virus at the end of April and in early May. Though all the infections occurred outside school, Peacock said, they did not want to risk the chance of an outbreak if the school’s 675 students returned to campus full time.
“It was about protecting what we have right now,” Peacock said, noting the district is still planning in-person graduation next month. “We’re continuing to refine our protocols. This isn’t going to be over in the fall. We want to be ready in the fall for kids to come back full time.”
The state wants every public school to prepare to fully reopen for all grades when the next school year starts in September.
State health officials plan this week to provide public and private schools with updated guidance on in-person instruction five days a week.
There will be a reiteration of existing directives for wearing masks, cleaning classrooms, maintaining proper ventilation, contact tracing and reporting COVID cases to the local health district, agency officials said at a news conference Wednesday.
Also, the state will recommend that districts draw up plans assuming a 3-foot distance between students in classrooms and a second plan without any physical distancing.
And districts will be encouraged to develop programs for testing and vaccination. Those are not yet required for in-person instruction, said Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary of the Department of Health.
“We’ve learned over the past year that schools are very good at implementing these health and safety measures which limit transmission,” she said. “We’re really excited that the 2021-22 school year can look a bit more normal and that Washington’s children have the opportunity for full-time in-person instruction.”
Reporter Jerry Cornfield: firstname.lastname@example.org | @dospueblos
Ian Davis-Leonard: 425-339-3448; email@example.com; Twitter: @IanDavisLeonard.