As students begin logging onto class this week, families have mixed feelings about how they expect the new school year to pan out.
All Yakima County public schools have announced plans to start the school year remotely, based on public health recommendations. It’s not clear when students in these schools can expect to return to school buildings.
Local private schools, on the other hand, have chosen to offer in-person learning. They say they can do so safely, and have been working with the local health district to make plans. The decision runs counter to public health guidance, though.
Earlier this month, Gov. Jay Inslee recommended that students in high-risk counties — or those with more than 75 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over a two-week period — not return to school buildings. Yakima Health District also recommended remote learning. The county had 186 new cases per 100,000 population from Aug. 5-18. It’s an improvement from earlier this summer, but well above the 25 per 100,000 goal.
Here’s what Yakima County parents say about how they’ve prepared for the new school year, and what’s different this fall:
Four kids, more devices
Aimee Lybbert will have a full house this fall as she pursues a degree at Central Washington University while her four kids in Yakima School District learn alongside her from home. She has children in preschool, elementary, middle and high school.
“That’s five of us juggling (internet) bandwidth and struggling to find a quiet enough space within our home to do Zoom calls,” she said, adding that her husband is working from his office.
Lybbert said she already feels better prepared for school than she did in the spring when schools closed suddenly.
She said advisers at Davis High School, where one of her daughters is enrolled, provided guidance on social and study skills in the context of the pandemic — like how to set up a space for maximum productivity and how to manage time well.
She said the district moving to a 1-1 system, where each student has a device to take home, has also been helpful. In the spring, she was initially sharing one computer with her kids for all of their school work. Some of the devices provided by the district have software and learning platforms preloaded onto the computer, which she said will make it easier.
Discovery Lab, where her daughter attends elementary school, also provided some school supplies including headphones, which she said would help her daughter listen to and concentrate on video content.
And pre-released school schedules relieved concern about overlapping learning: Already, Lybbert can see that at least some of their work will be staggered throughout the day and week, making it feel more manageable.
She’s also grateful that attendance and grading are back on the table, providing a bit more structure.
She said while her family isn’t as prepared as she would hope — they haven’t yet arranged designated work spaces — they have some loose systems that might help the kids. They have a variety of “desk” options aimed to support the different learning styles in the family: A fitness ball, standing desk set-up and TV tray to work from the couch are some options so the kids can change their positions throughout the day to help them focus, she said.
While Lybbert said she’s anxious to see how things pan out, she said she’s feeling more confident because of the outreach and support provided by her kids’ schools.
“This is not going to be like the spring. It’s not going to be like normal school. But this is going to be a lot better, and I’m hopeful,” she said.
‘Very stressful and complicated’
Andrea Hernandez said the thought of the new school year is stressful.
As an early childhood educator for La Casa Hogar, Hernandez teaches foundational knowledge to young students and will continue to do so remotely while things are locked down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But that won’t be easy to do with three school-aged kids, now in preschool, second and 11th grades learning at home, she said. She’s worried about a few things.
She wonders if the family’s internet connection is strong enough to handle remote learning and teaching, or whether it will be too noisy for them to concentrate. She worries about navigating platforms like Google Classroom, one of the core programs used by Yakima School District, and a computer in English, her second language.
And in the spring, her oldest two kids were receiving paper packets of homework. She was able to work with them, when her schedule allowed, to complete the work throughout the course of the week, she said. Now, they’ll have daily work, and Hernandez will have to try to help them with their different subjects and coursework.
“It’s very stressful and complicated for me,” she said.
She worries that other parents and students, especially English language learners, have similar struggles. She said she hopes to have more communication from the district, and possibly tutorials in the learning platforms her kids will be using so she can better support them. In an ideal world, she said, her kids would still use paper homework packets instead of the online learning platforms.
“It’s intimidating for more parents, because some parents are learning to speak English and don’t understand the computer, too. (Like) how to post to … the computer,” she said.
“It’s a challenge,” Hernandez said of remote learning.
Getting back into the swing of things
Bridget Russel jokes that her family has a work-from-home team and go-to-the-office team.
Russel has worked remotely since before the pandemic, and her son Coleman will be starting his sophomore year at Davis High School remotely.
On the flip side, her husband is working from the office, and their eighth-grade daughter Sophie will be among the small population of Yakima County students returning to school in-person this fall, as she starts her final year at St. Joseph Marquette Catholic School.
She said the family was lucky that their work patterns accommodate the unusual circumstances this school year.
“We’re very lucky that I work from home anyway and I have for years, so we don’t have the difficulty of parents who work away from home and are essential workers and have to figure out child care,” she said. “I don’t know how they do that and how they’re going to do that. That seems daunting to me.”
An estimated 63% of jobs in Yakima County are in essential fields like health care, agriculture and wholesale trade, According to job figures from the first quarter of 2018 provided by the Yakima County Development Association.
Russel also said she’s been impressed by Yakima School District’s preparation for the fall, and is excited the district now has devices available for each student. Her son is a diligent student, so she feels confident he’ll do well this year. His biggest challenge will be getting back in the swing of waking up early.
“For my daughter, that’s a whole other ball of wax,” she said.
Russel said she is nervous about Sophie returning to school campus and the possibility of her being exposed to COVID-19 if there is an outbreak on campus, and then bringing it home. She plans to have her daughter shower and change her clothes when she gets home from school each day.
But Russel said the school’s safety protocols — from temperature checks at the door to cohorting and sanitation throughout the school day — sound detailed and effective. She feels relieved to know that St. Joseph Marquette has been working closely with the Yakima Health District in reopening plans, and that there is a back-up plan if school needs to go remote again.
As close as normal as possible
Britteny Grow was hoping her kids would go back to school in-person this fall so she could start a master’s degree program, but said she understands the need to keep the community safe from the spread of COVID-19. She’s postponing her studies until things settle down, since remote learning in the spring was a challenge.
Grow has four kids, in seventh grade, fourth grade, second and kindergarten. In a normal year, she is a substitute teacher in East Valley School District, where her kids attend school. But with campus closures, she said she’s basically without work. Right now, she said, that’s somewhat beneficial. She can be a stay-at-home mom and try to make the school day as close to normal as possible, she said.
The kids have individual storage cubbies for school supplies and to charge devices they’ll use for learning. They’ll share a large table instead of individual desks — something she said mirrors the school setting for younger students, who might have multiple kids at a table in a classroom.
“There will definitely have to be headphone usage, because they’ll all be in the same room learning different things,” Grow said.
Her kids have a bit of a challenge on their hands, though. As dual-language program students, they’ll have to find enrichment learning opportunities to make sure they don’t fall behind in their Spanish learning, since they likely won’t have the half-day of Spanish-language content they’re used to in school. Grow said she knows some Spanish, as does her husband, so they’ll make it work.
The district is already proving it is ready to support parents, though, Grow said. During question and answer sessions, she said district staff had answers ready to almost all questions parents asked. This year, Grow said there were several things that should make the school year easier than in the spring: devices are available for students at home; attendance can be monitored while also having flexible engagement times throughout the day remain to meet families’ different circumstances; and learning platforms will be consolidated.
Grow was also encouraged when school staff said synchronous learning — in which teachers are available on-screen to students — would not mean hours of students staring at a screen. Instead, she said she was told it would better replicate the classroom setting, with the instructor providing guidance and prompts for students to then work independently off screen for chunks of time before the next set of instructions.
There are two things that remain a concern: How she’ll ensure her kids get physical education and movement during the winter if campus and gyms remain closed, and how other students who are behind in subjects will be supported properly so they don’t get further off-course.
What’s your experience?
How is your family approaching things differently this school year? Email education reporter Janelle Retka at firstname.lastname@example.org with contact information or call 509-577-7675.