Families and educators from the Bellingham School District describe their students’ experiences with online learning.
BY ARIA NGUYEN
Lively playgrounds once filled with children and laughter stood vacant. Parking lots full of cars and after-school chatter were empty. This description applied to schools across Washington state when Gov. Jay Inslee signed his lockdown executive order on March 17, 2020.
Inslee’s order closed all public and private schools to prevent the spread of the COVID-19. Now, over a year into the pandemic, schools are slowly reopening. However, the impacts of virtual learning are still of concern for many families and students, including those in Whatcom County.
When the pandemic began, children’s safety and education were of major concern. In fact, 42% of parents in the United States were concerned about the negative impacts the coronavirus would have on their children’s education, according to a Gallup survey published on March 31, 2020.
A mother of three students attending school in the Bellingham School District, Brooke Pete, said an overwhelming number of emotions swept over her at the start of the pandemic when it came to her children and their school experiences.
“As a parent, you don’t know how you are going to do it yourself; with the pandemic it was a lost feeling,” Pete said.
This lost feeling came from the lack of accessibility to educators due to remote learning, but also the lack of physical stimulation for her two youngest children, Troy,7, and Aleenah, 9, from interacting only with family at home, Pete said.
“Online learning was a good effort, but it did not maintain students learning; instead, it was more so to maintain a connection,” Pete said. “Basic building blocks were taken away from kids who are functioning during the pandemic. They need librarians, teachers, to have that classroom experience.”
Pete was not the only one concerned for students. On March 12, 2021, Inslee announced an emergency proclamation requiring school districts across Washington state to offer some in-person instruction. Although health departments reported 758 new cases of coronavirus across Washington that day, Inslee said that it was important to get children back into classrooms.
Inslee’s order came after President Joe Biden’s March 2, 2021 directive which said all states must add pre-K and K-12 teachers and licensed childcare workers to their vaccination prioritization lists. With this directive, nearly 80% of teachers, educators, school staff and childcare workers have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention.
With this proclamation and vaccine rollouts, the Bellingham School District opened all of its schools for in-person instruction on March 19, 2021. Students above the third grade attend school in-person two days a week, while the rest of the time being remote. Some people hope that having children return to school will be beneficial, especially for the kids at home who feel behind or are missing social interactions.
Fred Chung, an educator at Whatcom Middle School, acknowledges the challenges parents and students faced during the pandemic in areas of academics. Chung said most parents were overwhelmed trying to navigate the pandemic while also trying to focus on their kids’ schooling. At one point, the assignment turn-in rate from his students was down to 40%.
Chung said that virtual learning was a challenge as middle school students had to change their schedules constantly. The Bellingham School District said each student has “four classes at a time, rotating every 22 days to four different classes.” This means student’s core subjects and electives rotated, making kids go days without valuable classes they would attend during a normal school day before the pandemic.
“The district changed up the periods, so students went a certain period without focusing on the other important subjects and so some skills were lost when it came to academics in that sense,” Chung said.
Reflecting on how the Bellingham School District handled the pandemic, Chung said he would have handled some things differently, but he believes they did the best they could under dire circumstances.
“The district went out of their way to provide internet access and emphasize equity as that has always been a part of their mission, but something got sprung on them so suddenly, so you have to adapt,” Chung said.
Concerns continue to arise from parents, such as Pete, surrounding children’s academics and social interactions. However, Chung said he believes that everyone needs to continue to support each other.
“We all need to remember to give teachers grace, give admin grace, give the parents at home grace; we are trying to help people in every aspect,” Chung said. “That is huge. Try not to judge each other. That is how I am looking at things as we are all going through a lot right now and we are all doing our best.”
As for the future, Bellingham Public Schools Communications Manager Dana Smith said the pandemic caused a significant financial impact on public schools due to decreased enrollment as parents are concerned about their children’s safety.
“There have been 31 confirmed cases since we have been in school, starting Nov. 2, 2021, and so far, no cases have been transmitted at school,” Smith said. “That means as a district our risk mitigation strategies are working.”
In a follow-up email regarding federal relief funds and finances, Smith said any money the district receives as part of the American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law by President Biden last month as a part of coronavirus relief, will be used to “assist with expenses associated with the pandemic in our schools.” This includes personal protective equipment for students and staff, technology and/or internet access for families who need it, health services coordination and systems to support on-site work such as contact tracing and other things to get schools and their students back on track, Smith said.