School district parents weigh in on learning during a pandemic

Second- and third-graders are scheduled to return to the buildings on Feb. 8

In-person or remote learning, or some of both? That’s a question that has been on the minds of students, parents, teachers and administrators for the last 11 months.

With Mercer Island School District kindergartners and first-graders returning to in-person, part-time schedules — and the rest of the students scheduled to follow soon — the Reporter reached out to parents of local students to share their thoughts on schooling during a pandemic.

Kindergartners returned on Jan. 6 and first-graders followed on Jan. 19. According to an in-person hybrid learning timeline on the district site (at post time), second- and third-graders are scheduled to return on Feb. 8, with fourth- and fifth-graders to follow on March 1, sixth-graders on March 15, seventh- and eighth-graders on March 22 or 29, ninth-graders on March 22 and 10th-12th-graders on March 29.

Teachers and students are wearing masks, and desks are situated six feet apart. In a previous Reporter article, assistant superintendent Fred Rundle said the district received approval from the Washington State Department of Health and the district’s risk management staff to first allow kindergartners back. The district next focused on first-graders, and can continue from there as long as the district is demonstrating that it is controlling school COVID transmission through guidance within the Department of Health’s toolkit.

Parents’ thoughts

* Patty De Santiago, who has a kindergartner and a fourth-grader in district schools, said she was initially skeptical and worried even thinking about her children attending in-person classes.

After reading and researching at length and mainly following her gut feeling and motherly instinct, she decided to proceed with in-person learning. When her kindergartner loaded up her backpack and left home for school the first day, emotions were mixed for both mother and daughter.

“She was super happy and excited to see her teachers in person and play with classmates. Also kind of scared as it is her first year in elementary school. For me, it was the thought of COVID running wild as it still is around the world. I had been more inclined to keeping my child at home versus going back to in-person classes,” she said.

De Santiago — whose fourth-grader will soon attend in-person classes — said the teachers and staff at school have made her feel more at ease by “taking care of the whole process to make sure kids were as safe as possible once stepping foot on school grounds.”

* On the flipside, Karen Ullman and Samantha Rubenfield feel that until students and teachers are vaccinated, the district should not be welcoming them back into the buildings.

Ullman, whose daughter is in eighth-grade and stepdaughter is a high school junior, weighed in: “I do not understand why we are even discussing this before the vaccine has been completely rolled out. If kids are required to be vaccinated before attending kindergarten, they should be required to be COVID vaccinated before returning to school. Period.”

A mother of a third-grade boy, Rubenfield said she finds it “unconscionable” that teachers are returning to the classroom before they can be vaccinated.

She added: “Some people are under the impression that if they wear a mask and keep six feet apart they can’t get sick. That is simply not true. Following CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines will reduce the risk of transmission, but it won’t eliminate it.”

The Avery girls Bryn, a fifth-grader, and Taryn, a second-grader, with their pandemic puppy Patriot Oliver Avery. Photo courtesy of Alison Smiley

The Avery girls Bryn, a fifth-grader, and Taryn, a second-grader, with their pandemic puppy Patriot Oliver Avery. Photo courtesy of Alison Smiley

* McCall Avery and her family are new to the district after moving to the Island from California over the summer. The isolation has been rough for her “social butterfly” second- and fifth-grade girls.

Avery is appreciative of the teachers, staff, parents and kids at St. Monica’s Catholic School, the Stroum Jewish Community Center and the Boys and Girls Club “for demonstrating returning to school safely is possible with common sense and kindness.”

She’s ready to send her daughters into the in-person learning realm when their scheduled dates arrive on the calendar.

“I’m hopeful the half-day hybrid learning start is a good first step and all our kids are back to five full days soon. Our kids want, need and deserve to be back in a real classroom in a real school building with real friends. All online all the time has felt punishing at times,” she said.

* With two high school girls — a freshman and a junior — currently learning from home, Jen Sadlier has been set to release her daughters back into the physical classrooms since the fall.

“I’m sure teachers are doing their best, but online learning is ridiculous. Each class meets for two hours and 20 minutes each week, as opposed to in person, when it’s five hours,” she said. “The kids are isolated and depressed. Their social development is being stunted.”

Sadlier’s sister has a high school sophomore and senior, and all four girls were looking forward to attending assemblies and football games together and passing each other in the hall.

“I am glad there is finally even a projected date for hybrid for high school. I pray that goes according to plan and that we will have our kids back full time before the end of this school year,” she said.

Other Island schools news

The French American School’s website states that its young pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students are learning in-person and remotely.

At St Monica’s Catholic School, its students have been learning in-person and hybrid since October, according to Jamie North, advancement director.

“All is going very well, and we love having our kids on campus,” North said.

Northwest Yeshiva High School Head of School Jason Feld said they have been offering hybrid learning options since the beginning of the year.

“We do offer remote learning for all of our classes and a few students who are not yet comfortable being on campus, and that has worked out really well,” he said. “We do follow strict health and safety protocols on campus and we are fortunate that no member of our learning community (faculty, staff or students) have tested positive for COVID-19.”