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Students, staff welcome return to classrooms

A teacher in front of an elementary classroomSchool halls are noisier this fall. And that increased volume is music to the ears of Snohomish School District staff and the almost 9,300 students who returned to full-time, in-person learning this fall.

“Kids and staff are excited to be back at school,” said Sam Hanson, Emerson Elementary principal.

In March 2020, COVID-19 shut down in-person learning at public schools in Washington state and across the nation. The youngest students – kindergarten to 2nd grade - returned full time last spring. Older students in grades 3-12 attended in a hybrid schedule – typically two days per week with about half the students attending at one time to ensure social distancing. All students transitioned into full-time, in-person instruction in September 2021.

Today the school day looks as close as possible to what students experienced prior to the pandemic. Health and safety measures are still in place including social distancing, masks/face coverings, improved ventilation and an emphasis on hand washing to reduce the spread of the virus. Hand sanitizer is available in the classroom and in other areas in the school.

During the school day, custodial staff continually disinfect high-touch areas such as doorknobs and stair railings. Desks are cleaned daily as well. These tasks are on top of the regular cleaning necessary for a safe and healthy school. In addition, filters within the air ventilations systems are on a 16-week replacement cycle to meet new air quality standards.

Air quality is of high concern. With the help of grants from Puget Sound Energy, Snohomish County PUD and the U.S. Department of Commerce, outdated and obsolete HVAC control systems are being replaced at Cathcart Elementary, Central Primary Center and Totem Falls Elementary.

“Parts for the old systems are not manufactured any longer and that can put schools in a vulnerable situation with their ventilation systems if something was to break,” said Dave Sage, Snohomish School District’s Executive Director of Maintenance and Operations.

“We know the pandemic did not treat people well. We all have moments that are hard to handle, but I believe we are definitely on the road back to thriving.”

– Sam Hanson
Principal, Emerson Elementary & Snohomish K-6 Remote

The generous grants make up about 25% of the expected $450,000 project price tag. The remainder will be funded by federal pandemic relief funds. These federal dollars are not expected to continue.

Failure of the 2020 bond request to voters has put many projects like this one on the back burner. Older systems such as roofs, HVAC and siding are nearing the end of their useful life and need attention.

As any homeowner who has recently replaced their house’s roof can tell you, the cost of a new roof can be pricey. A replacement roof for a 2,000 square foot home may run $17,000+.

A child completes a school assignment at her deskGrants certainly help but the majority of the needs require community support through a levy or a bond issue.

Supply chain slowdowns
Supply chain snags have impacted some of the items school staff normally used. The air filters take about 16 weeks to arrive. Sage said the work maintenance staff did during the past five years to chronicle each mechanical system helped the team respond quickly during the pandemic. Identifying each part for each HVAC unit – hundreds across the district – and the replacement supplier of each part expedited the work done to meet the higher ventilation standards needed to allow students to return to on-campus learning.

Just like community members are experiencing at the grocery store, some school meal ingredients are becoming more difficult to find. Marty Grasa, manager of the district’s Food Service program, recently noted that a selection of meal choices is always available to students. However, kitchen staff may not be able to always provide exactly what is published on the monthly meal menu. There is also a shortage of labor available to work in the program.

However not all families were ready for that step back to in-person instruction this fall. At that time, no vaccine was available for elementary school age children. Snohomish school leaders heard their concern and set up an online instruction program — Snohomish K-6 Remote — as an option for those students.

Hanson is also the principal of that program that serves about 160 students. These students live in neighborhoods across the district. Remote instruction teachers and the in-person Emerson staff operate on the same campus and collaborate as one professional teaching community.

Hanson and educators are aware of the academic gaps the pandemic forced. All those within the educational system are working diligently to help every student move their learning forward regardless of which instruction model they are studying under.

A young boy reads a book in his classroomSocial and emotional health is as important for student learning as academic instruction. To excel, Hanson stresses students need to feel good about themselves and be with friends. In person learners are benefiting from greater social contacts with classmates, he said. Online teachers incorporate ways for children to connect and get to know their classmates outside of formal instruction.

On the Emerson Elementary campus, Hanson sees a lot of smiling eyes above the required face masks for indoor activities. Children may remove their face coverings while outside. They are reminded to practice social distancing on the playground.

“We know the pandemic did not treat people well,” Hanson said. “We all have moments that are hard to handle, but I believe we are definitely on the road back to thriving.”