Mercer Island families prepare for return to in-person learning

About 93.3% of Mercer Island residents ages 12-19 have completed the vaccination series.

Mercer Island mother Melissa Danielli spent last year juggling the different educational needs of her five children, acting as assistant teacher, school nurse and tech support instead of just “mom.”

In the fall, Mercer Island School District (MISD) plans to return to in-person education five days a week. After a challenging year for students, teachers and parents, most people say they are ready for the return, despite any concerns they may have.

“Summer’s my favorite time of the year, but there’s a part of me that kind of is ready to be done with summer because we’ve just not been in school really for so long,” Danielli said. “I’m excited to finally have them go.”

While some students appreciated the independence and personal responsibility required by online learning, many struggled to adjust and learn as much as they would have in a normal year.

Mercer Island High School (MIHS) rising senior Divya Krishnaswamy bought numerous AP test prep books to study for exams she didn’t feel prepared for by her classes. She completed the year entirely online to protect her grandparents.

Krishnaswamy said she liked being able to work at her own pace, but felt that she had to do independent preparation for her five AP exams. She said she is excited to return to in-person school and is not worried about health safety because of the vaccination rate on Mercer Island. But she does have other concerns.

“We’ve gotten used to the past one and a half years of the schedule being a little bit more flexible and a little bit easier and the workload being a lot smaller,” Krishnaswamy said. “Also missing instruction time for previous classes, especially ones that build off of each other, how is that going to affect performance and classes next year?”

Northwood Elementary School teacher Amy Wick had to balance her own school schedule with those of her three children.

“There’s the concerns of not being able to vaccinate our smallest humans and masks aren’t fun, but if we have to wear masks and we have to do all of these other things, but it means that we get to be in person all day, then that’s wonderful, because I think it is definitely what’s best for kids,” said Wick, a learning support teacher and 504 coordinator whose children attend Northwood Elementary School and Islander Middle School (IMS).

According to King County data, 93.3% of Mercer Island residents ages 12-19 have completed the vaccination series.

MISD is not requiring the COVID-19 vaccine, but will continue requiring face coverings and physical distancing of at least three feet in classrooms, following the Washington State Department of Health current requirements for the 2021-2022 school year.

MIHS English teacher Kati McConn said she is concerned about an outbreak from unvaccinated students and staff, although all of the teachers she has spoken with are vaccinated.

She said she hopes that students who don’t feel well will stay home and teachers can work with them to use the online learning skills they’ve gained and accommodate their physical absence.

“The last two years have been really rough, not just for students’ emotional well being, I think, but for teachers as well,” McConn said. “A lot of us just want to feel like we get a win this year.”

Danielli said her children — three at Lakeridge Elementary School, one at IMS and one at MIHS — all struggled with online learning last year. Although she said she loved her children’s teachers and is happy with the district overall, they had a difficult year, and Danielli didn’t feel that her children were able to learn at all. To ensure they don’t fall behind, Danielli hired math tutors over the summer for four of her children.

“The younger ones, I think they had more trouble focusing on what was being taught and we’d have lots of spinning in our chairs and just distraction,” Danielli said. “My older kids, I think the problems they had were more related with the actual assignments, and how to even know what was supposed to happen.”

Danielli said she struggled to juggle five different hybrid schedules and felt that spending the year at home with all of the children put a strain on her relationships with them and on their relationships with each other.

They also had difficulty working with the schools to accommodate her son’s 504 plan and her daughter’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Danielli said there were times when her son, whose 504 plan permits late assignment submissions, wouldn’t get credit for work he had completed.

“There were a lot of concerns in the community about special ed,” Danielli said. “My daughter, according to her IEP, was supposed to get 80 minutes a day of services and they were only giving her 20. We actually had to hire an advocate, we had to fight really hard for it. The services they were giving her were pretty subpar. It was a brutal, brutal process and I’ve heard that pretty consistently across the district with special education.”

Danielli said trying to support all of her children’s educational needs got overwhelming.

“They did their best, but we hit a point where I finally just said, for myself personally, I’m not looking at missing assignments anymore. I don’t care, I just can’t, I can’t care, because it’s all too much and we’re all doing the best we can,” Danielli said.

Enrollment decrease

Like many districts, MISD saw a decrease in enrollment across the district. At the elementary school level, MISD student enrollment decreased by almost 11% from the previous academic year.

This contributed to a funding decrease and an expected budget deficit that led the district to make budget cuts, including cutting K-5 Spanish.

Mercer Island resident Fran Farber said her grandson will not return to MIHS in the fall, in part because he wants to move to a school that focuses on his athletic interests. She added that he did not feel that the district handled the pandemic well.

“One teacher said she was going to flunk him because he didn’t get something in, and he knew he sent it in, and it had to go to his parents before she believed that he sent it, and he sent it twice to her,” Farber said. “He was not happy with the way things were handled.”

According to a survey by MISD, of those not re-enrolling in the district, 18% plan to move to private school because they lack confidence in MISD. Another 46% plan to move to private school for personal reasons.

Kaisa Olson, a rising senior at MIHS, said it was a very chaotic year. Olson said she appreciated the opportunity to connect with her teachers and peers when the district transitioned to a hybrid model, but some teachers did not handle it well, and there were issues with ensuring equal test difficulty for in-person and online students who had different levels of access to notes.

She said she is excited for the marching band to be able to perform at sporting events again and thinks it will be generally easier to learn and make social connections next school year.

“Socially, everything’s gonna be really awkward for about the first six months of people trying to get used to having other people around them,” Olson said.

Teachers are excited to build connections with their students, something they struggled to do through Zoom, Wick and McConn said, but hope they can carry forward some of the tools they gained to help those students who thrived online.

“While they may not have learned all of the school pieces that would be typical in the year and a half that we’ve been in this pandemic mode, they’ve learned so many other things,” Wick said.

Wick added that it’s important to not make students feel bad if they aren’t at the academic level typically expected of them in certain areas. She said her own children became more resilient and grew from the challenge.

McConn said she saw more students advocating for their mental health this year, something she hopes to see more students and families acknowledge.

“We were juggling and trying to build relationships with some students who loved being online, some students who hated being online, some students who didn’t care, some students who were asleep. The students were struggling,” McConn said.

“I’m really looking forward to having students in the classroom,” she added, “being able to talk to them, do circle shares with them every Friday, and not just teach learning skills, but also help them improve and grow as people.”