Children have never been so thrilled to go to school.
After close to a year of learning at home, island kids have been returning to the public school, which has enacted strict safety protocols. Kindergarten through third-graders walked over the threshold of the elementary school on Jan. 19.
“Our students are amazing,” said Superintendent Eric Webb. “This is what we’ve been working toward. We spent a lot of time planning the two instructional models, and our ultimate goal was to bring students back to campus. We are finally here. To see their eyes light up when they come back into the building is incredible.”
At the end of February, fourth and fifth-graders returned, and on March 1, sixth graders will begin attending classes. On March 8, seventh-grade resumes and March 15 will see the eighth-graders and high schoolers. Kindergarten through eighth-graders will continue to participate in outdoor learning activities at Camp Orkila, as they have done since the beginning of fall 2020.
“I’d like to give a big shout-out to the Orcas Island Education Foundation and Orcas Island Community Foundation for raising $300,000 to help offset the Camp Orkila Days that have been so important for our students,” Webb said.
There is a long list of safety requirements that parents and students must adhere to such as taking kids’ temperatures before drop off and providing clean masks daily. All students are required to wear a mask both indoors and outdoors unless a six-foot distance is maintained while outside. Desks are six-feet apart, windows are kept open when possible and instead of lockers or cubbies, students keep their schoolwork in portable tubs. In order to ensure small class sizes, each grade is divided into two cohorts. Each group spends two days with an instructor, two days with a paraeducator and one day at Camp Orkila. The cohorts don’t mingle — they socialize in different areas for recess and lunch.
“We have had an opportunity to refine our health and safety protocols and it’s amazing how well the students, faculty and staff follow these. That’s how we will stay open,” Webb said. “We took this opportunity to upgrade the HVAC system and install handwashing sinks in the hallways as well.”
Elementary teacher Anne Ford McGrath has enjoyed leading smaller groups of children.
“The class size is wonderful,” she said. “You can reach every kid.”
Webb says that unlike other districts, Orcas kids have overall excelled with online education.
“We didn’t see the regression that other districts have seen in distance learning,” Webb said.
For those who have struggled with keeping up on schoolwork, the district will offer summer classes, credit recovery opportunities, and academic support and interventions this summer and well into 2022 and beyond to help students who are at risk of falling behind.
“For 11 months, our students have been empowered to take an active role in their own educational path while facilitated by dedicated OISD staff and parents,” Webb said. “We are already witnessing in our younger students independence never observed before. We now have a unique and wonderful opportunity as educators to adapt our instruction to blend this newly acquired skill with individualized and authentic in-person instruction.”
Webb commended his faculty members for their dedication to re-opening the district.
“I cannot even begin to describe the resiliency, flexibility, and creativity the OISD staff has demonstrated during this unprecedented time,” he said. “Although many of our staff will not be eligible for the vaccine for some time, they are here because they understand the value of in-person learning. There simply is no substitute for in-person learning. When you work with people who put students first, things fall into place.”