Back on March 13, the students of Selah High School — like many throughout the state — filed out of their school building, unaware they would not be returning for several more months.

Since the March 2020 school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the other school buildings within the Selah School District have returned to part-time, in-person instruction. And although a select number of Selah High School students have attended school in person for additional academic support this year, the vast majority of high school students have been learning at home.

The administrators of Selah High School, in partnership with the Selah school board and superintendent, have worked tirelessly to make in-person instruction a safe, viable option for Selah High School students.

“We wanted to ensure that we were providing an opportunity for all of our kids because we know that all of our kids need a footprint, a physical footprint, in the school,” Selah High School Principal Colton Monti said.

Monti said many students, from the most high functioning to those who struggle in school, have been in desperate need of social interaction and in-person instruction.

“As a principal, I have a moral imperative to act on something if I see something’s not working and not right,” he said. “I feel like this is a moral imperative to get kids a physical footprint back in our school and to begin to support them and connect with them.”

On Jan. 15, Selah High School began offering in-person, small-group instruction for all students to provide time for more social connection and academic support.

The school now hosts in-person classes each morning from 8:20 to 10:50 on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. A different grade attends class each day of the week. On Mondays, seniors come to school. For juniors, Tuesday is their day to attend. Thursdays are for sophomores and Fridays are reserved for freshmen.

While at school, students meet with their advisory teacher for guidance and support. However, because these sessions are optional, no new academic ideas are introduced during this time.

“The point of that time is all about support, all about connection,” Monti said. “Any of the academic things that we would normally do — like, for example, teaching a math concept or teaching an English concept — that isn’t the time that that’s going to occur.”

After returning home, students are still required to attend the remainder of their classes via Zoom.

Although each student only spends 2 1/2 hours per week in the building, many saw this as a step in the right direction and were looking forward to even a small amount of social interaction.

McKenna Swindell, a senior, said that remote learning has been socially unfulfilling, and she was looking forward to interacting with her fellow students.

“I think going back, for even a little bit, gives students something to look forward to so that we’re not just at home and we actually get to see our peers,” Swindell said prior to her first day of school.

Teachers agreed that providing an opportunity for students to interact with one another was much needed.

Dana Anderson, a P.E. teacher at the high school, said the mental health of her students has suffered as a result of isolation.

“I can’t even tell you how many kids admitted that they’re feeling anxiety, depression, loneliness, feeling invisible, not eating right, bored,” Anderson said. “I think that kids need to see other kids and that kids need to see adults.”

However as much administrators wanted students to return to the classroom sooner, creating a system to ensure the safety of both students and staff was a difficult process.

“We also understand how important safety is,” Monti said. “Anything we do, it needs to be done safely.”

For that reason, many precautions, in accordance with regulations from the Yakima Health District, have been put into place.

For example, each day, everyone entering the school building must complete a form to confirm that they are not experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19. Temperatures are taken and mask-wearing is required.

Class sizes are limited to fewer than a dozen students per classroom. These small cohorts of students do not intermingle with others, helping to reduce potential spread of COVID-19.

Additionally, Monti said community members play a vital role in helping students return to school.

“If we want schools back in session, we need to continue to follow the protocols set in place — socially distancing, masking up, and trying to be as safe as possible,” Monti said. “If we can decrease our community transmission rates, that’s going to allow for us to get kids back in school.”

The small-group, in-person sessions at Selah High School will continue for the foreseeable future. However, Monti hopes that this will be a stepping stone to making a more complete return to school. For the time being, the opportunity for Selah High School students to spend even a short time at school is certainly a valuable one.

Natalie Keller is a sophomore at Selah High School.