Students at Everett High on their first day back to campus, April 19, after schools had been closed for nearly a year. (Andy Bronson / Herald file)

Students at Everett High on their first day back to campus, April 19, after schools had been closed for nearly a year. (Andy Bronson / Herald file)

Students gear up for a year of reading, writing and masking

The excitement of returning to classrooms is tempered by a surge in COVID-19, mask wars and vaccine mandates.

ARLINGTON — Excitement is building for a new school year in Snohomish County.

Anxiety, too.

With students poised to return to campuses full-time next month, educators and school administrators are fine-tuning strategies for safely educating them as the delta variant fuels an unrelenting rise of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.

Challenges loom inside classrooms. Teachers are preparing lesson plans for reading, writing and arithmetic that they must deliver while wearing a mask. And they need to keep watch to make sure students are wearing their masks and sitting at least three feet apart to help prevent the spread of illness.

Outside, too. Classroom instructors, along with every one else working in schools — custodians, bus drivers, librarians, principals etc. — are under a new edict from Gov. Jay Inslee to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by mid-October if they want to keep their jobs. Districts short on staff, like bus drivers, worry the new rule will exacerbate the situation.

And, in some communities, impassioned opponents to the student mask rules and employee vaccine mandate are venting their anger at local school board meetings. Last week, a group of adults disrupted a meeting of the Marysville School District board, causing directors to adjourn and order all future meetings be conducted virtually.

And to further complicate matters at the launch of a new year, teachers are negotiating new contracts in nine of 15 public school districts in the county. Absent a pandemic, it’s normal for such contract talks to conclude in late August. These are not normal times as the vaccine mandate is spurring questions for which there are no answers, yet.

“The theme of the last 18 months is be ready and be fluid,” Lakewood schools Superintendent Scott Peacock said. “We will.”

Even with the turbulent forecast, educators are largely upbeat.

“I am getting a sense that there is a positive energy around having our kids here again,” Peacock said.

Teachers, too.

“There’s that excitement out there,” said Larry Delaney, president of the Washington Education Association and a teacher from the Lakewood School District. “Anybody who wants to return to schools will be able to do so. We are going to have a year that when it starts will closely resemble normalcy, with masks.”

Nothing’s been normal since March 2020 when the coronavirus touched down and the state endured its first wave of infections. Gov. Inslee ordered public and private schools to close down and roughly 1.2 million students found themselves attending classes online from their bedrooms and kitchen tables.

Most students started last school year in remote learning as well, though by year’s end they did get a chance to resume in-person instruction, at least a couple days a week.

When schools open Sept. 1 in Mukilteo, Lake Stevens, Granite Falls, Darrington and Northshore, students will be back in classrooms five days a week. Same for districts which get under way the following week.

Arlington schools Superintendent Chrys Sweeting isn’t sweating the unknowns in the classrooms and pressures outside. Or at least she doesn’t let on that she is.

“Our emphasis for this year is to keep moving forward,” she said. “There will be situations we haven’t thought of. We know that. We will be flexible. We will adapt. Our purpose is to educate students so that they can learn and achieve. But we have to provide a safe learning environment so that can happen.”

COVID Chronicles

The state required students wear masks and sit farther apart in classroom where in-person instruction resumed last school year. That didn’t keep coronavirus out, though public health experts say safety measures kept outbreaks small.

All told, there were 1,171 cases associated with 310 outbreaks in K‐12 schools between Aug. 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021, according to the state Department of Health. Of those, 71% involved two or three cases and roughly a third sickened were aged 20 and older so not all students

Of the outbreaks, 38 involving 132 students were reported in Snohomish County, according to the state.

A separate Snohomish Health District report — which tracks all cases, including ones that are not part of an outbreak — recorded 312 cases at 222 different classrooms and facilities between August 2020 and March 2021.

It is going to happen again.

“We will see cases in schools just as we did last year. We’ll probably even see outbreaks,” Dr. Chris Spitters told reporters Aug 17. “The goal is to contain and keep the outbreaks small, prevent ongoing transmission and try to keep kids in school getting educated. I am confident that although there will be cases I am confident we can do that.”

In some districts, the continuing presence of coronavirus is causing an uptick of interest of families wishing to keep their children learning remotely.

For example, Mukilteo had planned on about 250 high school students in the district’s virtual academy. Then, earlier this month, administrators decided to offer a distance learning option for lower grades. In response, roughly 450 elementary students and 250 middle school students will begin the year learning remotely. All told, this works out to a little more than 5% of the district’s enrollment.

Pandemic Tensions

Meanwhile, one of the biggest unknowns is what to expect on school campuses on the first day of classes.

The student mask mandate is igniting furor among parents and others in this state and across the nation. It’s manifested in violence in California and Texas and led school leaders in several states to seek a police presence on campus on the first day of classes.

On Wednesday, a band of anti-maskers packed the meeting of the Marysville School District Board of Directors while others unable to get in due to capacity limits shouted and banged on windows, according to social media accounts.

Two days later the district sent a letter to families saying staff and board members “were subjected to a variety of threats and abuses.”

Objects were thrown, a staff member threatened and at least one district administrator physically blocked by a protester, the Aug. 20 letter said.

“As we continue to move towards opening schools, please know that we are also working with our security staff and the Marysville Police Department to ensure students and staff are safe,” the district letter stated. “We continue to be excited about the upcoming school year and the return of our students to in-person learning.”

In recent months, there have been rowdy and unruly crowds at board meetings in other districts in the county. Opposition to mask and vaccine rules as well as curriculum for instruction on sexual education and critical race theory have fueled the protesters.

A rise of intensity has administrators on alert.

“We’ve heard concerns very clearly,” Peacock said. “We have not seen any intentions on the part of our parents to disrupt the start of school or the operations or our school district.”

Sweeting said her approach with them is to “be a good listener” and keep the conversational focus on how best to serve students.

“It is a family,” she said, referring to schools. “We are all in this together. We are all just trying to help our kids learn and be safe.”

Jerry Cornfield: jcornfield@heraldnet.com; 360-352-8623; @dospueblos

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