Students Continue Return to Classrooms in Yelm, Rainier

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With Yelm and Rainier elementary students back in the classroom part time, staff and teachers at the schools have been working with all hands on deck to deliver a positive learning environment while at the same time addressing challenges brought on by efforts to curb transmission of COVID-19. 

Interviews with a half dozen teachers and principals show contrasts when compared with the traditional learning models used just a year ago. Masks, social distancing, smaller cohorts of students, mask breaks, frequent hand-washing and hygiene sessions, and subject shuffling have all become the norm as students and staff look to safely return to the classroom. 

And you can expect more challenges as the two districts plan on returning more students to a hybrid learning model due to declining COVID-19 transmission locally. 

Rainier this week began returning high schoolers to the classroom, starting first with the freshmen on Feb. 16, and Yelm on Feb. 18 planned on moving forward with returning third, fourth and fifth grade students. 

Students at both districts will go through a daily health screening and temperature check. All students must wear face masks, and social distancing measures will be put in place. 

Yelm elementary schools are currently serving about 955 students, grades K-2, with the hybrid model, Superintendent Brian Wharton said during a recent school board meeting. That number is expected to nearly double as the district returns its next cohort of students. 

About 220 Yelm kindergarten through second grade students qualified to return are remaining in the remote learning model by choice, Wharton said. 

Despite the challenges that come with advising students during a pandemic and shaking up curriculums, teachers at both districts say they’re excited to have students back and have the opportunity to see their students grow. 

“They’ve gotten to know each other as these little squares. Now, the playing field is even. Everyone’s in class, in person,” said Prairie Elementary Principal Debbie McLaren. “It’s cute because I had a student the other day say ‘Oh, I get it now. All I had to do was have a teacher show me.’”

Prairie Elementary students had their first day back on Jan. 28, McLaren said. The school’s staff have been focused on hitting a lot of targets and addressing safety concerns, as well as working on keeping students 6 feet separated, setting up classrooms, figuring out what recesses will look like, and making sure there’s personal protective equipment (PPE) for all. 

“The kids have not changed. The kids are absolutely 100 percent the same. They have adjusted to the changes — it’s not weird to them — it’s just new to them,” she said.

Classrooms at Prairie now top out at about a dozen students, and students are required to have lunches in their classrooms. 

Prairie has had about 19 students, mostly in special education, on campus since September, McLaren notes, so they’ve had time to prepare for larger returns. 

“We have had to make many changes to our daily routines,” wrote second grade teachers Susan McLaughlin and Kathy Duncan. “Students cannot share supplies. So each student has a bag that contains everything they need. We use velcro dots to help students stay 6 feet apart when moving around the room. On the playground the children have a zone where they can play. Each day the zone changes. Breakfast and lunch is served in the classroom. During our day we also build in time to have mask breaks outside. Hand washing is a top priority. We have never seen such sparkly fingers.”

At Rainier Elementary, Principal Rita Meldrum said the return to classroom instruction has been overwhelmingly community-driven. Many of their students came back in October. 

Rainier currently has a total of 333 kindergarten through fifth grade students back in hybrid learning, with 83 students opting out. 

“Teachers are working. They’ve been amazing. They wanted kids back,” Meldrum said. “Our community’s been nothing but supportive, patient and understanding. It takes all of us.”

Students have had the opportunity to go outside more — in order to take mask breaks, and for twice-daily recess. Staff and teachers at Rainier have also implemented hygiene breaks, Meldrum said.

Rainier Elementary is still doing lunch and breakfast at the cafeteria tables, though only three socially-distanced students are allowed at a table. There are also curtains that block tables from one another. 

There’s also been some changes in roles at the elementary school with some specialist teachers filling into general education duties. 

“I have a music teacher right now who is my kindergarten teacher,” Meldrum said. 

Kayla Mounts, a third grade teacher, said there’s been a lot of change to how in-person instruction looks, but she notes that they’re grateful to have students back in the classroom. 

“I feel like (students) weren’t picking up everything on the video and live teaching as if they were in person. Not from lack of trying on either teachers or students in, it’s just we take for granted what we learn in person,” she said. 

Despite students not being allowed to share materials, there has been a lot more discussion in the classroom and distanced collaboration. Third grade is an important time in a student’s life, Mounts said, as it traditionally marks the time when students begin to step away from learning to read and start reading to learn. 

“I think it is a lot more noisy. Not noisy in the bad sense, just in that we have more classroom discussion rather than think-pair-share,” she said. “They’re coming up with their own answers rather than working with a partner.” 

Trisha Edwards, a first grade teacher at Rainier Elementary, said they’ve been washing their hands about a “billion times a day.” She’s been teaching about seven to eight kids a day. 

“I’m not a huge worksheet teacher, so while they’re here I’m trying to get them off the computer and get them focused not so much on the worksheet but have them do the hands-on work,” she said. 

For about a month now, Rainier has been operating its own voluntary and free testing pilot project thanks to a partnership with the state. Yelm Superintendent Brian Wharton said recently that they’d be among 50 other districts entering the same program soon. 

As of last week, 55 Yelm Community Schools staff members were eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, with 11 staff having started the vaccination process. No staff members yet at the district are fully vaccinated. 

Wharton in a Tuesday interview with the Nisqually Valley News said staff and teachers have remained resilient by redeveloping learning models three times in the past year. 

“We’ve never trained teachers to have kids in multiple different environments instead of in front of us,” Wharton said. “Whatever the challenge is, we’re going to learn it and we’re going to overcome it.” 

Unlike Rainier, Yelm hasn’t had to shift specialist teachers to general education duties, Wharton said, thanks to the district’s larger size, though teachers’ rolls have broadened over the last year. 

Since returning elementary students, Wharton said teachers have reported major strides in learning. Early data from those students suggests an education gap hasn’t developed.

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