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Back to School--Reflections at the Beginning of a New Way of Starting the Year

Updated: Sep 17, 2020

When school closed suddenly in March, due to the coronavirus pandemic and we moved to remote learning, no one knew how long it would last. We held onto the hope that we would all be together again before the school year ended in June. This did not happen and we needed to reinvent some of our most time honored school traditions, such as the Salmon Release Day and our combined Graduation and Summer Send-Off.

The fifth grade students, along with their families, released salmon the day before graduation, while the whole school was invited to watch as the juveniles were introduced to Issaquah Creek. On Graduation Day, graduates shared their remarks via Zoom. (You can read their comments,along with those presented by Quynh Cao, the North Room teacher, in a previous blog.) The Class of 2020 made history and summer had arrived.

Summer, for teachers, is a time to recharge, to hone our skills, and to find inspiration. In past summers many of us spent time traveling. For me, this is my preferred source of inspiration, experiencing the world from a different perspective, living in a culture different from my own. The summer of 2020, of course, was different. As we continued to shelter in place, each of us selected an online course or two, many from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and each relevant to this altered world we now live in. Profound questions were raised: How do we build classroom community while we are physically distanced? How do we make sure we are including everyone’s story when we study history or literature?

While we were interacting with teachers from around the world through our online courses, we did find inspiration and a renewed sense of purpose. We became eager to build our classroom communities. If we were able to open school with children attending in-person we knew we had to re-imagine and rethink the ways we interacted with children, families and our curriculum in order to meet social distancing requirements. We investigated the recommendations from the Washington State Department of Health and the Office of Public Instruction. We explored the resources and tools provided by the Northwest Association of Independent Schools and looked closely at our environment and the expertise and interests of our teaching staff.

We celebrated some of the basic characteristics of our Lake and Park Community-- we are small, we are flexible, we are child-centered. We have a low teacher-child ratio. We recognized that learning outdoors was already a hallmark of our program. We are creative and courageous. When we are exploring a new thematic topic we often look to the larger community for assistance. We have all practiced this approach to learning something new. Once again, we looked for guidance and expertise from the broader community. We asked questions. We welcomed advice and found some great support within our school community. We wrote protocols and commitments, we joined other elementary schools to meet with the Department of Health. By mid-August we were no longer feeling so alone.

We formalized our group of experts into the Lake and Park School Health and Safety Committee. We now meet weekly to make sure we are understanding the trends and not missing anything. When there is no play book you want to make sure you are doing everything within reason to mitigate risk.

Finally, September 2nd arrived--the first day of school. Children came to school, wearing their first day of school outfits and smiling eyes, bringing their open attitudes. They explored the classrooms, they painted, they built with blocks, they read, they told stories and welcomed friends both old and new.

Throughout July and August we questioned whether children would be able to follow the necessary protocols. We wondered how they would respond to the new classroom arrangements. We worried we wouldn’t be able to understand each other when we were always wearing masks. We would encourage one another by saying the things we all know to be true, “Children are resilient”, “The children will show us the way”, “Children are flexible”. Now we are just six days into this new experiment. We will continue to make adjustments, and to respond when situations arise. But, we know we can do this. As teachers we can offer welcoming invitations to engage and the children will respond with open minds, actively making meaning and finding their own best ways to make sense of the world around them. They already have.

Eileen Hynes

September 9, 2020

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