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Masks on, local high school students adapt to a return to the classroom

Adjusting to a new reality


Last updated 10/14/2021 at 1:22pm

Brian Soergel

Edmonds-Woodway sophomore Lily Distelhorst: "Being able to just be back in class and having regular due dates and regular teaching, I feel more motivated and am doing better than last year." She took her mask off for this photo.

Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on three school districts in the coronavirus age: Edmonds, Mukilteo, and Everett.

The 2020-21 school year – it was a long, strange trip for students in Edmonds, Mukilteo, and Everett school districts.

Everything was new: Remote learning. Zoom "can-you-hear-me-nows." Mask on, mask off. Drive-by graduation. Increased parental interaction. Missing friends.

Is 2021-22 any better? Most say yes.

"Being back in school has just been so much better for the mental health of a lot of us," said Katelyn Ely last week, mask on, before the beginning of the senior leadership class at Edmonds-Woodway High School.

Head nods all around.

"It's really nice just walking through the hallways and seeing friends and talking to different students – and just being in a group setting with all your peers."

Yes, last year was a slog.

"It was hard navigating through school online and keeping yourself dedicated to schoolwork," Ely said. "But it definitely teaches you how to stay persistent and goal-set – and it makes this year more enjoyable."

Owen Lee, who said he's introverted, said remote learning – he didn't opt for the hybrid option – kept him isolated. And his learning skills suffered.

"It's really hard to motivate yourself and stay committed to your classes. You're not seeing anybody, and you have very little accountability. But it was fine – teachers were super understanding, which was really nice. And so there was a lot more flexibility than normal."

Some benefits emerged.

"High school can be stressful, so it gave me almost a break," he said. "Now I feel a lot better coming into this year. More secure, and more confident."

But at the end of his first week this year, Lee admits he felt exhausted. However, he's learned a little about himself, something he wanted to share.

"Don't let yourself get overwhelmed. I feel everything's a lot easier if you just kind of go with the flow. Follow what people are telling you to do. And try not to worry too much, because you're here to learn, and you're here to have fun and make friends. Being super stressed out about things that are out of your control isn't helpful."

Sydney Durgan, a member of Edmonds-Woodway's dance team, said she's glad to be back in person. Last year's team had just four members, and they were only able to show off their moves at select basketball games.

"We're more interactive with teachers and staff now," she said. "Online, it was like a bunch of PDFs and reading; it was really tiring on the eyes. Being able to use your hands and actually looking at something on a piece of paper is a lot better."

Back in class

Like most students in local school districts, senior Rie Kim is attending school in-person full time at Kamiak High School. She took the hybrid option as a junior.

When she did step on campus – like all students – she had to go through "attestation," or confirming she was symptom-free.

Students do not have to go through attestation this year.

"All we really do is we just wear masks," Kim said. "And before we come into the classroom, we wipe down our desks with sanitation wipes."

Students also have to make sure to social distance in class – that means staying 3 feet apart. "Except in the hallways," she said. "It's really hard to maintain that 3 feet."

She admits her online grades suffered last year.

"It was really hard to focus and pay attention online. But once I started going back in person with hybrid, that was way better than just learning fully online."

But no surprise – entering class last year was anything but normal.

"When I would come into school on Tuesday, we'd actually be with the teacher, and the rest of the kids who weren't there in class would be on Zoom in the front of the classroom. It felt really separated, like we were in two different classes."

While students are back and encouraged, COVID has certainly not gone away.

As with Edmonds and Everett school districts, the Mukilteo School District keeps track of positive COVID cases among students and staff.

"According to the website last week, we had two confirmed cases," Kim said. "But my teacher and I were talking, and we think it's definitely more, because even the other day she was telling me how there were like 30-something kids in the nurse's office before 10 a.m."

Covered faces have become a way of life. For most.

"Most everyone wears masks," said Kim, a member of the tennis team, editor of the school newspaper, and ASB secretary.

"I mean, you'll definitely see kids walking around with their masks not on properly. I know there was a kid who got called to the principal's office because he consistently didn't wear his mask correctly. But most of us are really good about keeping our masks on and wiping our desks once we come into the classroom."

At Jackson High School in the Everett School District, teacher Bill Trueit said he's noticed students showing a great deal of appreciation for being back in-person with full classes.

"In my classes, they have all worn their masks properly," he said. "As students leave at the end of the class period, many say 'thank you.'"

Trueit is teaching AP U.S. government, politics, and geography.

"I look forward to seeing smiles when we are allowed to attend classes without masks," he said.

"Until then, I will do what is considered necessary to keep a safe environment so that we can get through the year without returning to remote learning."

"While there are many opinions about masking, we are required to follow safety measures as mandated by the state, and we will continue to do all we can to keep our students safe," said Principal Lance Balla in a newsletter.

Making up for 2020

Even with COVID protocols, which now may include students quarantining in case of exposure to someone testing positive, many students are happy to return to campus. There's a sense of normality, of tradition.

Lily Distelhorst, 15, a sophomore at Edmonds-Woodway, didn't have much to remember from her freshman year.

A typical introduction might go something like this: Losing yourself in hallways, cheering for your class at louder-than-loud assemblies, hanging with new friends, screaming your lungs out at football games, and welcoming new learning experiences.

"I definitely missed out," Distelhorst said. "Everyone in my class kind of agrees that we all still feel like freshmen. Homecoming, spirit days. I played varsity softball in the spring as a freshman, but you couldn't go to any of the other sports, like football or volleyball. It was just weird."

Distelhorst said she's making up for it this year – tagging along to football games and joining school activities. That includes softball this coming spring.

And she's seen her schoolwork improve. That's essential – she's taking honors courses in English, world history, and honors algebra and chemistry. Plus: fundamentals of art and French 2.

Brian Soergel

Kamiak Senior Rie Kim says her grades have improved now that she's back on campus.

"I definitely felt like last year I was procrastinating more, and I didn't really have the motivation to do my work," she said.

"It felt more like I would procrastinate until the day assignments were due. But this year, being able to just be back in class and having regular due dates and regular teaching, I feel more motivated and am doing better than last year."

She's also making new friends.

"I've been able to meet a lot of new people," Distelhorst said. "I haven't become super close friends with anyone new this year, because I've mainly been sticking with people that I went to middle school with.

"But I feel like I do get more interactions with people I didn't know, and that I am starting to make more friends that I didn't know before."


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