EVERETT — Increasing numbers of elementary students are returning to classrooms around Snohomish County as school districts continue slow and deliberate reopenings.
As of Wednesday, 12 of the 15 public school districts serving students in the county had resumed face-to-face teaching in one or more grades, or had a set date to do so.
On Monday, the Index School District will begin limited in-person instruction for kindergarten through third grades, and Granite Falls is bringing back kindergartners using schedules blending lessons offered face to face and remotely.
Snohomish will follow suit Tuesday, when it welcomes second-grade students back to schools. And a few days later, their kindergarten and first-grade pupils will join them.
And Everett and Marysville will begin reopening with kindergartners and first-graders returning Feb. 8.
Meanwhile, districts including Arlington, Lake Stevens, Lakewood, Stanwood-Camano and Sultan are preparing to expand existing face-to-face instruction, with Stanwood-Camano and Sultan potentially resuming classes for secondary students next month.
The moves come amid a recent decline in new coronavirus infections in Snohomish County. They are a result of painstaking negotiations between district leaders and teachers on how to ensure critical health and safety protocols, such as wearing masks and social distancing, in classrooms and on campuses.
“We’re all concerned about COVID,” said Everett schools Superintendent Ian Saltzman. “We wanted to be slow and accurate. Teaching does not stop. Whether in hybrid or distance learning, we want to assure every student is getting the education they need.”
Everett, like other districts, has been providing in-person lessons for students in special education and specialized learning programs.
On Feb. 8, students in kindergarten and first grade will begin a hybrid schedule of two days in class and three days of remote learning. Under the schedule, all students will be in distance-learning on Wednesdays. Also Feb. 8, a number of other pre-K and elementary students with special learning needs will resume receiving some in-person services, officials said.
About 1,700 students are taking part in face-to-face instruction and another 1,700 are choosing to stay fully remote, Everett district officials said.
Not every teacher will be returning to a classroom. Some will continue teaching remotely under provisions worked out between the district and the Everett Education Association, which represents teachers. Such restaffing means some students may have new teachers.
Jared Kink, president of the association, said that ensures that instructors with a higher risk of contracting the virus will be able to continue working off-site.
“Nobody is being forced back,” he said. “This is one of the most difficult, complex problems we’ve ever had to address and we feel like we’re always choosing from a list of bad options.”
Edmonds, Mukilteo and Northshore districts mostly have not resumed in-classroom teaching, although each is providing limited in-person instruction for students participating in special education programs and an array of specialized programs. In each, negotiations on how to reopen safely are not concluded.
“We have been gradually ‘re-opening,’ but through an approach that is safe, steady and thoughtful,” said Dana Wiebe, former president of the Mukilteo Education Association.
Some districts, including Mukilteo and Lake Stevens, have surveyed parents and guardians of children to gauge support for a return to in-person instruction.
In Lake Stevens, as of Wednesday, approximately 80% of parents and guardians responding favored a transition back to in-person instruction, said district spokeswoman Jayme Taylor.
“We know there are many mixed feelings on the topic, and we appreciate the patience we’ve received,” Taylor said.
There is growing political pressure on public schools to reopen. For example, a proposed COVID relief package working its way through the Legislature directs districts to submit plans by March 1 showing how they will bring some students back to campuses this school year.
And Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday he thinks the state “can open up our schools safely now. I believe we ought to.”
Acknowledging teachers’ concerns, he said at a news conference, “The fear of this is understandable but it is not backed up by experience.” That said, “There’s no zero risk.”
In Snohomish County, the Sultan School District is the furthest along in reopening.
Students in preschool through fifth grade are on campus in a hybrid learning model. On Feb. 2, it will welcome back sixth graders to Sultan Middle School and grades 9 and 12 at Sultan High School.
If all goes as planned, on Feb. 17, seventh- and eighth-graders will be back at Sultan Middle School and 10th- and 11th-graders at Sultan High School.
In the Stanwood-Camano district, where K-3 students are on-campus now, fourth- and fifth-graders are returning Monday. . The earliest the district would consider bringing back middle-school students is Feb. 22, according to Maurene Stanton , the district’s director of human resources. Any updates or changes will be announced in the district’s weekly communication to families sent out on Fridays, Stanton said.
In the Lakewood district, K-2 students were welcomed back to campus on Monday, and grades 3 through 5 will return on Feb. 16. Students are in the classroom four days a week and are engaging in distance-learning the other day, a system Superintendent Scott Peacock said has been successful.
Arlington has been teaching kindergarten and first-graders on campus since October. Last week, second- and third-graders arrived, and students in the next two grades could join them in February, said district spokesman Gary Sabol.
“We believe learning in classrooms is still the best,” Sabol said.
In Darrington, students in pre-kindergarten through second grade are back.
Granite Falls is slated to have kindergarten students back Monday and preschool students the following week.
Kindergartners have been in classes in Monroe for a while, but the school board’s attempt to expand to first grade fizzled in November in the face of opposition by teachers and parents.
“We are hopeful that we will reach agreements soon around working conditions and will be able to provide more in-person learning opportunities for students,” Superintendent Justin Blasko wrote in a Jan. 20 update on the district website.