Washington Teachers Take It Slow, Help Kids Learn Basic Social Skills During the First Weeks of In-Person School

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In Danielle Woods' fifth grade classroom at Leschi Elementary School in Seattle, desks aren't arranged in groups anymore. Woods doesn't have a shared carpet where students used to sit together, or tables where they used to congregate.

Now students bring blankets and towels to sit on during their outdoor lunch on the blacktop. A big chunk of the day is spent wiping desks and washing hands. Woods scooches around the edge of the classroom trying to get to all of her students, but with 28 desks all 3 feet apart, "it feels tight," she said.

It's been nearly three weeks since Seattle Public Schools and most other districts in Western Washington returned to school buildings, and teachers and students alike are adjusting to a new normal. For many, it marks the first time they have had a full-time, in-person schedule since schools were forced to close in March 2020.

Teachers like Woods are working to assess where their students are not just academically, but socially. It's a mixed bag every school year, Woods said, but this year the differences are stark. For example, Woods has students reading from the second-grade level up to an eighth-grade level.

"I will say, we are taking it slow and slowing down quite a bit because some kids haven't been in a [school] building for two years, so there are a lot of basic social skills we're reteaching," Woods said.

She has to make sure students know how and when to ask for help, how to ask to use the bathroom, and how to solve a problem with one of their peers.

"By fifth grade, this is usually ingrained," Woods said. "We're slowing down to make sure kids can do that independently."

Leschi Elementary, in Seattle's Central District, is a diverse school; last year, the school's enrollment was about 70% students of color, and nearly half of students enrolled were low income. There are students in the room who haven't crossed paths with people who speak different languages or practice religions they are not familiar with, Woods said.

"We really had to rebuild," she said. "Some kids know each other and are totally fine, but there are definitely some kids learning how to be in large groups. It's tricky for kids."

It's been difficult to figure out where students are academically, Woods said, because they didn't take state assessment tests last year.

"The only thing I really have is from third grade and these kids are in fifth grade," Woods said. "We're sort of just muddling through figuring out what kids know, what they need to know."

Heather Vargas-Lyon has been a nurse for 18 years and has worked as a nurse at Seattle Public Schools for three years. School during a pandemic "is just overwhelming," she said.

"I'm so busy getting students assessed for COVID symptoms I'm nervous I might miss something else because I can't be in two places at the same time. It's just really difficult." Some days, she doesn't have time to take a lunch break.

Usually, Vargas-Lyon said she is assessing injuries, keeping track of students with severe allergies or asthma, and providing emotional support. Now, she must also figure out when students who were quarantined can come back to school, contact parents, follow up with symptomatic students to see if they were tested, and send information to contact tracing teams.

Some Seattle schools have what's called a protective health care worker at schools, Vargas-Lyon said, and they are expected to assess students with COVID-19 symptoms and help contact families of students who need to go home. But not all schools have one, she said, which is one reason her workload has increased.

"I think everyone is truly doing the best they can," Vargas-Lyon said. "There are so many symptomatic students and contact tracing. Seattle Public Schools is a very large school district and it's hard if you don't have the manpower. You just have a very high workload."

Ensuring all Seattle schools have a protective health care worker and making sure nurses have the most up-to-date guidelines and families have clear guidelines on when to have their children stay home and return to school would help, Vargas-Lyon said.

Farther south, at Rising Star Elementary School in Beacon Hill, Kyle Jackson is working with his 15 kindergartners to make a "t" pose with their bodies while walking in a line to ensure social distancing. By holding their arms up by their sides and out front, they create space between their classmates.

This will be his second year teaching full time, and "they didn't prepare us for something like this" when he was studying to be a teacher, Jackson said. "We adjusted well and kids are very flexible and did an amazing job keeping up."

Because kindergarten is the first year of formal schooling, Jackson "kind of expects students to come in almost with a clean slate and with minimal skills."

But he can tell which students went to day care or transitional kindergarten.

"Some of them come in and can already write their name," Jackson said. "I have one student who can count up to 100. That's impressive for the beginning of kindergarten."

Woods said the gaps in resources for some students have been "definitely illuminated."

"In this area there are million-dollar homes by the water, then there's low-income housing," Woods said. "We have students who have had a private tutor for the past two years."

Mark Juaton, another teacher at Rising Star, said his first graders are working on community building, socializing and literacy. His students are also learning how to be in an in-person classroom because, for some, it's their first time.

"There is something to be said about having the expectation of raising your real hand instead of clicking a button on the computer and raising your ... virtual hand," Juaton said.

Based on some learning assessments and reviewing classwork, Juaton said his students retained what they learned last year. His school is working to come up with a plan for students who need to return to learning at home if they're sick.

In Eastern Washington, Melva Pryor, who teaches fourth grade in the Mead School District north of Spokane, said she and her students are trying to adjust to a "new normal."

"When I'm setting up my class I'm trying to find ways that I can engage my students in an inclusive space," said Pryor, who teaches at Skyline Elementary School. "I'm continuously thinking about which one of my students were virtual last year and which ones were in person."

Pryor said she's thankful each student at her school has a Chromebook for individual instruction and has been able to use a reading and writing program called Lexia Learning. Students are on different learning levels, she said, and online programs help each learn at their own pace.

"We didn't have that before," Pryor said.

For her, that points to one of the silver linings of the pandemic. "Learning will never be the same again," she said, "not in a bad way, but in a good way."

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