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caption: South Shore PK-8 in Rainier Beach
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South Shore PK-8 in Rainier Beach
Credit: Courtesy of South Shore PK-8

So awkward: Middle and high schoolers return to school, and it feels weird

Thousands of middle and high school students in Seattle and the region returned to in-person learning for the first time in more than a year. It was ... awkward.

Ann Dornfeld, KUOW education reporter, told host Kim Malcolm what it was like.

I visited South Shore PK-8 School in Rainier Beach. It felt upbeat on the staff side, but more tentative on the student side. There wasn't the typical jubilation, yelling, and laughing that you'd expect to see in a group of middle schoolers who are all being reunited for the first time in a while. It reminded me more of a bunch of kids who are all going to a brand new school for the first time, and they're really not sure what is ahead of them.

One of the kids I spoke to today was Norah Kim, a seventh-grader. She was chatting with some friends outside. They were talking really quietly, and they all looked a little bit tense. I asked Norah if she'd been seeing her friends socially this past year when school has been closed. She said no, this is the first time in more than a year.

You can imagine that it's overwhelming for kids to be living such sheltered existences, so many of them, and then all of a sudden to be around a bunch of other humans:

“I’m excited, but it's so nervous. The whole pandemic, and just being with people. But, I'm excited to see them.”

The staff were going around introducing themselves to students, even though they've been working with these same kids all year online. Now, they were all masked up for the first time. The staff were trying to recognize the students just by their hair and eyeballs.

Tia Yarborough, an assistant principal at South Shore, welcomed students back outside the building today. She said they wanted it to feel kind of cheerful because there are mixed feelings. They've had balloons and music. She told me the staff is placing an emphasis on tuning into kids social and emotional needs, in these first days back particularly:

“We're just letting them know that there's a lot of emotions, and it's okay to hold both," she said.

"We want to encourage staff to be present with their emotions, to hold community circles, to talk with students, and create that space."

For middle and high school students, it’s four hours a day, two days a week. Morning is remote. Afternoons are in-person two days a week.

This is not a teacher lecturing the class and introducing new material and concepts. That's all supposed to take place in the morning remotely so that it includes all the students who are 100% remote still — which is a lot of students.

Afternoon in-person work is supposed to just help students with the morning material. Some parents and staff I've spoken to have said this is basically just a study hall and a waste of time. The district says that's not true, that it's an opportunity to do more individualized work, for kids to get one-on-one attention and to work together in-person in groups.

Transportation has been a sticking point. The district still does not have transportation, even for all the students it's legally required by federal law to transport. That includes students facing homelessness, and students in special education services. They also don't have the transportation to get all the other kids to school. That's because their transportation contractor, First Student, laid-off drivers last fall, and has not been able to hire enough back. There's also a bus shortage I understand.

So there are kids who are stuck at home who are dying to be at school. I just read a text yesterday a teacher sent me from one of her students. The student was talking about how she was going to cry her eyes out if she couldn't get a bus to school.