Principal Dave Peters was judging a student talent show at Henry M. Jackson High School in the Everett, Wash., school district on Feb. 28 of last year when his cellphone rang.
It was the district superintendent with news that a Jackson High student had tested positive for the then-novel coronavirus. The district was alerting families that the building would close for 72 hours for deep cleaning and reopen for classes the following Tuesday. The auditorium soon started buzzing as parents got the notifications.
That case—believed to be the first K-12 student in the country with a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis—and the subsequent school shutdown made the threat of the coronavirus very real for many in this Seattle suburb. It proved a bellwether of the nationwide disruption of schooling that continues to this day.
By March 12, the Everett leadership team had decided to close all of Everett’s 29 schools for two weeks. Two weeks turned into six weeks, after Gov. Jay Inslee shut down schools statewide, then became the entire spring semester.
It would be nearly a year before children set foot back in the district’s buildings for classes—and even then, the majority of the district’s nearly 20,000 students remain in remote or hybrid instruction.
With millions of students nationwide still locked out of in-person instruction and schools sweating over how to welcome them back safely, Everett’s teachers, parents, students, and administrators are reflecting on what they’ve lost and what they’ve learned over the course of two interrupted school years.
A community on the pandemic’s front line
The coronavirus had been hovering around Everett since it first appeared in the country in January 2020: The first U.S. COVID-19 patient was treated at Everett’s Providence Regional Medical Center.
About a week after the Jackson High case, an Everett elementary school shut down because of a positive COVID-19 case. Then on March 5, the Northshore School District, about 20 miles south, closed all of its schools to prepare for remote learning.
“We are talking about the span of about a week and a half, when you are not sure what’s happening and then everyone is closing,” said Michael Takayoshi, who was in his first year as principal at Everett’s Cascade High School.
“It was so fast that you didn’t have time to even contextualize or come to terms with it.”
Jen Hirman and her husband, Joe, had been discussing whether to pull their two children out of school as the new virus marched across the globe. They had already equipped Elizabeth, an 11th grader at Jackson High, and Amanda, a 7th grader at Heatherwood Middle School, with hand sanitizers and advised them not to feel guilty about avoiding people who were displaying flu-like symptoms.
“All of a sudden you see Jackson High on the news,” Jen Hirman said. “That’s our high school principal, that’s our superintendent on CNN … For us, it was our school and our community. And it definitely brought it home. It brought it home very clearly—that it’s here, and it’s real.”
Heather Paddock, the principal of James Monroe Elementary School, still gets emotional thinking about that last day of in-person schooling last March, when her staff prepared take-home packets for students, telling them they’d see them in a few weeks.
She stood at the bottom of the stairs bidding them goodbye.
“I definitely felt uncertain,” she said. “No one had a crystal ball at the ready.”
Jared Kink, the president of the Everett Education Association, who taught math and social studies in the district before taking over the union job, remembers seeing teachers in tears in their cars after packing up for the day.
“They had spent the day saying goodbye to their kids; they had gathered everything in their classrooms,” Kink said. “They had held it together for the kids to make sure they were OK ... and then when the kids left, it all collapsed on them. ...That’s a memory that will stick in my mind for a really long time.”
“There was high anxiety, high sense of urgency, lots of unknowns, and quite a bit of fear.”
Remote schooling finally hits home
In some ways, Everett was more prepared than most districts for the switch to fully online instruction; the district had been planning for years to become a full 1-to-1 computing district in which every student had access to a digital learning device. Teachers had been trained on educational platforms, and high school students and those at one middle school were already taking home their district-issued Chromebooks.
The district quickly sent out resources for parents to help them navigate online learning. Still, it took a while for everyone to get the hang of things as the district transitioned to a new way of schooling.
“The teachers would be so happy when you did the work,” said Amanda Hirman. “You turned it in? You get an A.’”
One day felt like a snow day, two weeks were manageable, but six weeks started to veer into uncharted territory.
Elizabeth Hirman initially thought two weeks off from school would be a good break, like a mini-vacation. At six weeks, she started to think: “We can’t learn.”
It’s gotten better, but she still misses things like hands-on labs in her chemistry class, and she’s worried about having to take AP exams online instead of in-person like the SATs.
The initial lack of structure to the school day left Joe Hirman a little disappointed, though he gives the district a lot of credit for listening to feedback and making improvements for the new school year.
“They now have a system down, and it’s much improved,” he said. “But this is not how I would hope for my daughters to be educated.”
Teachers pivoted in ways that stretched them
Lara Fullner-Grennan, who teaches 6th grade English/ language arts at Gateway Middle School, thinks remote learning has gone better than expected.
“I have almost all of my kids showing up on Zoom every, single day,” she said. “We celebrate getting to see each other and getting to hear each other’s voices—even for a short amount of time.”
But she is clear that she would prefer to be in the classroom with her students.
“As fun as some of these activities are … [remote learning] is nothing like in-person learning,” Fullner-Grennan said. “In-person learning is still more exciting and more rewarding—and I also think more effective.”
Fullner-Grennan also spends her time differently as she prepares for remote classes. She now has to think about things like: Would a link work? Is this the most accessible way to present information to students? Is this lesson engaging? How video-friendly is this Google Slide?
Those are questions she didn’t have to answer when students were right in front of her and she could peer over their shoulders, see a mistake or misunderstanding, and address it in real time.
“The biggest thing with remote learning is the importance of celebrating small successes,” Fullner-Grennan said. “I don’t want to dwell too much on the negative part of it, because I know this is not going to be forever.”
The year has challenged traditional leadership approaches
At Cascade High, Principal Takayoshi was just a few months into his first year as the building leader when everything changed.
The most challenging aspect of running a school during a pandemic is the unpredictability of it all, he said. School leaders live by routines: bell schedules, testing periods, the normal flow of the school day and school year.
“One of the elements of being an administrator is being able to, in some ways, conceptualize the next month ... or the next couple of months,” Takayoshi said. “When you remove that degree of predictability from your day, you are kind of operating in the moment—always.”
It helped that Takayoshi had been an administrator in the building for five years before the pandemic. But there’s a lot that he misses: For example, he still wishes he could have had a traditional graduation for students last year, instead of the drive-through option that was offered at the end of last spring.
This time period has showed that the way that school is traditionally structured has not worked for many children, he said.
“Part of the work we should do as an industry moving forward is, how can we rethink public education so that it does work for more people than it does now,” Takayoshi said.
Everett educators envision plenty of permanent changes as a result of the past year’s experience.
Superintendent Ian B. Saltzman sees a continuing place for the remote learning option because some students thrived in that environment.
The superintendent also thinks schools must rethink how they use afternoon hours, particularly with parents and caregivers in mind. That could mean ideas like keeping the school libraries open until 7 p.m. or offering tutoring and assistance such as SAT prep during that window.
Interactions with parents will also change. The switch to remote has made it easier for teachers to connect with families and for families to participate in parent-teacher conferences and in activities that their children are involved in.
Teachers like Fullner-Grennan and Mark Dersom, a 4th-grade teacher at Monroe Elementary, see the benefits of continuing to use tools they took up during the pandemic, such as quick video feedback for students, and thinking about the user-experience when they return to their buildings.
Professional development will evolve, too, said Jo Anne Buiteweg, the district’s director of Learning and Information Technology Services. In districts like Everett, where getting from one school to the central office can eat into the day, teachers can log into professional development sessions without leaving their buildings or missing out on valuable learning opportunities.
Fullner-Grennan, the 6th grade English/language arts teacher, is among those who want to see time built into the schedule to allow students to engage in directed independent work, meet with teachers for office hours, or finish incomplete assignments.
“It’s become obvious to me how much kids really need and have come to rely on this extra gift of time,” Fullner-Grennan said. “That’s not something that’s available when it’s done as homework.”
Getting back to ‘normal’ will be a welcome, but slow, process
Everett started welcoming back students for hybrid learning in January, starting with students with disabilities. At this point, only K-3 students and those with special needs are back, in hybrid.
Five-days-a-week in-person learning for everyone is still some ways off, though Washington’s governor has been urging districts to reopen for in-person schooling, with masks and proper distancing and while providing parents the option of continuing with remote learning. (Educators were just moved up on the priority list on the state’s vaccination schedule.)
Saltzman described the feeling of having children back in the buildings as “Christmas all over again.”
“To have them back in slowly—it’s been refreshing and energizing,” Saltzman said.
But Takayoshi, the Cascade High principal, is still waiting for a normal school year—whatever that is. It’s still unclear when his students will return to the building part-time for hybrid learning.
The pandemic “is probably going to change our school for years,” he said. “And who knows what that would look like next year. Certainly, next year is going to look different from this year and will look different from any other school year.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 2021 edition of Education Week as One Year Later, a Front-Line District Reflects on COVID-19’s Continued Impact