Reflecting on schools reopening

Hallways that sat empty for many months are starting to refill. Within those halls, echoes of children’s laughter resonate — something that has been missing for almost a year.

Island schools are starting to welcome back most of their students after nearly a year of virtual schooling, driven out of the familiar corridors and into their homes by COVID-19.

While businesses and schools reopening may seem like permission to resume pre-pandemic life, personal safety practices still remain in effect, and for good reason.

Not all students are returning to school, and not all students who are returning will be there at the same time. For those in session, the schools have implemented extensive safety measures. Take, for example, San Juan Island schools, which will host half its students at a time; enforce social distancing and mask-wearing; and screen children.

Though a prevalent belief, virtual schooling hasn’t been as detrimental to the majority of students as was feared. In fact, some students have thrived in the atmosphere.

Superintendents from island schools participated in an online forum hosted by the San Juan Islands Community Network on Feb. 23. Orcas Island School District Superintendent Eric Webb noted he has observed a “new” type of student in the schools — the independent learner. He said students have become responsible for ensuring they’re receiving their education.

“I really think this is an opportunity for us to really move education forward,” Webb said. “We never want to get back to that ‘normal’ where we were. This has pushed us into a new norm for public education.”

Outside of schools, the pandemic rages on. The U.K. and South African variants of the virus have arrived on the shores of Washington state. These variants are thought to be more contagious and could have a higher fatality rate, but science has not yet confirmed that theory.

The vaccine, which has only been made available to certain first responders, those over 65 years old and a smattering of other people, may not be as effective at inoculating against the new variants. In addition to there not being enough vaccines made available to our community, the effectiveness is being called into question — although this does not diminish the necessity of receiving the vaccine for those eligible. Through no fault of its own, San Juan County, and Washington state as a whole, has had difficulties securing enough vaccinations for those eligible.

At the forum, the leaders were asked by moderator Michael Soltman about how the schools are protecting their staff. Teachers have yet to be included in those eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. While they’re next in line, as part of the state’s Phase 1B Tier 2, Soltman pointed out that the state of Oregon has said it will vaccinate teachers prior to putting them back into the classroom. In Oregon, eligibility for teachers to receive the vaccine began Jan. 25 as part of the state’s Phase 1B and came before the general population of people 65 and older, who became eligible on March 1.

Carl Bruner, Lopez Island’s interim superintendent, said that while teachers are a priority group, another problem stands in their way.

“Until the supply chain problems are addressed, it’s not going to make a difference,” Bruner said, noting there are community members who are eligible for the vaccine but have yet to receive it. “That’s part of the bigger problem. So, we’re trying to walk that line, by … advocating for teachers being moved up the list, beyond where they have been. While at the same time recognizing that it’s not realistic to think that we’re going to be able to get everybody … vaccinated quickly.”

Webb added, “Teachers are waiting patiently for that time to come, like a lot of other individuals in the community.”

It is imperative that those who work with children every day are properly protected against the virus — especially those who are at high risk of COVID complications.

We applaud the schools for their thoughtful, safety-oriented approach to welcoming students back to classrooms. And we feel immense pride for our island children for their resiliency and willingness to protect each other and our community. It is our sincerest hope that local districts can continue to provide in-person learning opportunities in the coming months.