After 12 months of disruption, in-person instruction has been slowly returning within Yelm Community Schools (YCS) and the hallways are abuzz with socially-distanced enthusiasm. Students are eager to connect, academic performance is improving and there’s a palpable sense of relief in the simple fact of being together.
“We’ve noticed that students were really excited to be back at school,” says Ilyana Brewer, a history teacher at Ridgeline Middle School. “They missed being with their peers and their teachers. It’s heartwarming to see them really want to collaborate, excited to see the staff and wanting to learn.”
The district has been phasing in hybrid learning. At the elementary school level, 1,913 students are in a hybrid model with 467 still in 100% virtual learning. Among middle school students, those numbers are 957 and 384, respectively, and at the high school, 1,283 and 274.
From a strategic standpoint, the district has two key priorities. The first was to create a strong plan for instruction that includes live and engaging experiences for students on the days they were at home, with connections to teachers and resources throughout the week. The second has been ensuring student and staff safety by implementing six basic principles of COVID-19 safety protocols. “We know when these six things are being adhered to that COVID transmission is greatly reduced,” says Yelm Community Schools Superintendent Brian Wharton. “We’re just a few weeks into this, and I’m ecstatic over how our elementary teams have reacted and put those things in place.”
Teachers across the district have been meeting in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) grouped by grade level and/or subject matter to share ideas and best practices. That’s made a difference, according to Hillary Hull, a Yelm High School biology and CTE teacher. “Our biology department PLC has done an excellent job at developing a virtual notebook online where students have to interact and it’s not just, ‘get on Zoom and listen to an instructor talk at you,’” she explains. “It’s interactive.” Throughout the remote learning phase and into hybrid instruction, Hull has been sending her greenhouse students home with plants they could grow on their own to maintain some hands-on learning.
In the second grade PLC, many discussions center around what content to cover live versus what can be accomplished on a remote day. “We’re teasing out the pieces that we’re going to teach in person,” says Susan McLaughlin, a Prairie Elementary School teacher, “and what we’re going to put into Google Classroom for their remote days as practice work.”
McLaughlin team teaches with Kathy Duncan in the same classroom. Duncan notes the creative ways the pair have come up with to help students adjust to the new safety protocols. “We tell the story of Officer Buckle and his safety dog, and the things we need to do at school to be safe,” she says. “It was a fun way to talk about why we need to wear a mask and be six feet apart.”
Brewer has noticed that clarifying expectations and being explicit about safety measures help to calm fears at Ridgeline. “Everyone is a little bit nervous right now,” she says. “Giving students structure and explaining why these things are important creates a lot of confidence that they’re staying safe and keeping their peers and teachers safe as well.”
While academic progress is important, students’ wellbeing is vital, and teachers are spending more time on emotional health during this transitional period. Kailee Houlihan, a fourth grade teacher at McKenna Elementary School, checks in with her students every day. “I’ve never done this before, but this year I’m asking how they’re feeling on a scale of one to three,” she says. “Whereas last year, I would have flown through the curriculum, now we’re making time to talk. Some of these kids have had huge life changes. It’s about meeting them where they are.”
Now that they’re back in the classroom, students are accelerating their academic progress, Houlihan notes. “They’re able to sit down and commit themselves to their learning. They have that structure and they’re able to really focus.”
McLaughlin and Baker are seeing similar results. “Being in-person has allowed us to move them further in their learning,” says McLaughlin. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised to see they’ve got some skills we can build on because when you’re doing everything electronically it can be hard to tell. Seeing them perform those skills has given us a lot of good feedback on how we need to proceed as teachers.”
All subjects are more challenging to teach online, but perhaps choir is one of the most difficult. Starting the week after Christmas break, Yelm High School Choir Director Tim Henderson began inviting students to come into the classroom on a voluntary basis. “It’s really hard to do music on an independent online setting,” he says. “The hardest thing to do is practice on your own.”
Those who choose to participate follow strict safety protocols. It’s been night and day having students back in person, according to Henderson. “The impact of being able to talk through things has been huge,” he says. “Before, they would say, ‘I don’t get it.’ Now there are light bulbs of understanding going off. They pick it up much faster and part of that is the instant feedback they’re getting.”
Superintendent Wharton credits all the teachers and staff for meeting the challenges the pandemic has posed with creativity and a collaborative spirit. “One thing we know about our teachers is that they love learning from each other,” he says. “It’s led to a strong sharing of practice and also strong internal leadership.”