With desks stacked away to provide social distance spacing, tenth grader Zendon Bugge attends a World History class during the first day of school for Everett High students on Monday, April 19, 2021 in Everett, Washington.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Editorial: Kids back in class; help keep them there

Plans for graduation ceremonies, summer school and the fall depend on our response to the pandemic.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Still in the middle of a pandemic — even with hopes that vaccinations can lessen the threat of contagion and get us to a level of community immunity — nobody expected that reopening public schools would be as easy as throwing open the doors and thinking things could resume as they had before.

But you probably didn’t expect to hear this in the halls of an elementary school: “Everybody do your zombie walk.”

“You see kindergartners with their arms outstretched so they don’t get too close,” said Shelley Boten, Everett School District’s chief academic officer, describing how kids are encouraged to keep their distance while moving through school hallways by pretending to be zombies. “It’s super cute.”

And it’s one of the strategies and accommodations being made as Everett Public Schools navigates its way — with other districts in Snohomish County doing the same — to return more students to the classroom and move ahead with plans for high school graduations, assessments of where students are and what they need, how summer sessions will help prepare for the fall and what to expect come September.

During a recent online conversation, school district officials outlined some of those practices and plans, acknowledging that even as much remains up in the air because of the pandemic’s uncertainty the basic work of feeding children’s hearts, minds and bodies has continued.

Back at their desks: With parents of less than half of students at all levels choosing remote-only instruction, more than half are sending students back to classrooms to participate in a hybrid model, Boten and Assistant Superintendent Peter Scott said. Students at each school have been split into two groups, with each group in classrooms two days a week, then attending two days of remote learning concurrent with classroom students and one-day of teacher-directed independent work on Wednesdays.

Attendance, Scott said, when counting remote and classroom learning, has been high, with as much as 99 percent participation at some grade levels.

The district has taken some advantage of the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s guidelines of providing three-feet of space among students and staff — itself a recommendation of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — but it is mostly keeping to a 6-foot rule for classrooms and most common areas. In hallways, the three-foot rule — and the zombie walk — applies. As has the practice of wearing masks and handwashing.

While students are split among two groups, they are still learning as one class, with teachers addressing students in the classroom and online at the same time; even students in the classroom are connected online so they have contact with classmates in the other group.

Testing, catching up and moving ahead: The state OSPI has set aside the Smarter Balanced Assessment tests for this spring, but assessments for students continue — as they were before the pandemic — with computerized tests that measure skills in language arts and math, determine strengths and suggest a learning path for each student, Boten said.

In preparing students for the fall, those assessments will also help as parents consider whether to take advantage of summer sessions, something that the district is expecting more demand for following the end of the school year, Boten said.

“What we’re looking at is how do we accelerate them towards grade level standards,” Boten said. “They’ve missed opportunities perhaps, but we really want to provide opportunities to help get them to standard.”

The district, thanks in part to state and federal grant funding, plans to expand access to programs during the summer, including a special week-long program before the next school year starts for incoming first- and second-graders to adjust and acclimate socially and emotionally, “so we can jump-start the school year,” she said.

At higher grade levels, particularly for ninth graders where credit recovery is a leading indicator for graduation success, Scott said, “we have some opportunities for kids to accelerate in different pathways.” In the past, parents would have to pay for such accelerated learning programs during the summer, but the district is providing those at no charge this year, he said.

“It’s going to be a different summer, because it’s a remediation summer,” Everett Superintendent Ian Saltzman said. “You’re going to get parents who want their kids to get caught up. And you’re going to see that nationwide.”

Pomp and circumstance: The district’s high school graduates still got their diplomas last June, but commencement was a socially distanced drive-through ceremony for Everett and other graduates. If Snohomish County can remain in Phase 3 of the state’s reopening criteria, there are plans for an actual ceremony at Everett Memorial Stadium, said Kathy Reeves, the district’s communications director.

Graduating seniors for each of the district’s high schools will be seated on the stadium’s field, while as many as 2,500 family and friends will be able to watch from the stands, Reeves said. But if Snohomish County reverts to Phase 2 and its stricter limitations, it’s back to the drive-through commencement. The district is ready to move forward with either option, depending on what happens with the county’s status in coming weeks.

The coming school year: Everett and other districts will build on what they’ve achieved thus far as plans continue for the fall. The accomplishments have depended on the work of many, said the district’s superintendent.

“This is where we were and where we are now,” Saltzman said. “There’s been three big components of success here: the teachers, the staff and the board. They’ve all been very supportive. You just don’t do this in isolation.”

Neither, however, are schools and students fully isolated from the covid-19 pandemic and the limits it imposes. That makes everything that follows — graduation ceremonies, summer school and what the coming school year will look like — dependent on the public’s continued attention to limiting the spread of covid-19; by being fully immunized, by continuing to wear masks when indoors and in groups and maintaining safe distances.

Snohomish Health District officials warned last week that the county is at risk for returning to Phase 2 if the rates for infections and hospitalizations continue their recent climbs.

Sliding back would put a lot of what’s been achieved so far at risk.

“You see these kids and teachers back in schools; it’s a feeling of euphoria,” Saltzman said.

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