Federal Way students back in action

Federal Way students returned to classrooms this week that — for the most part — felt something like normal again.

At Star Lake Elementary, kids from kindergarten through eighth grade funneled down the same road to get to class this week.

Families circled in the parking lot to drop off kids, or walked kids right up to the building itself. Some recorded their kids’ first steps in the door on smartphones.

Holly Dennis, a parent dropping off students that morning, chatted with other parents in the wake of the starting bell. The return to those familiar school routines is a welcome sense of normalcy, the parents said.

“It’s relieving to be dropping them off at a real building, rather than at a bus stop or a computer screen,” Dennis said. “That’s been challenging for not just them, but for us.”

Students in that neighborhood started at the brand new Star Lake Elementary School and Evergreen Middle School (formerly Totem Middle School) this year. The buildings were paid through a voter-supported 2017 school bond.

The campuses are connected and share a library, which will allow the schools to experiment with collaborative activities like a reading buddy system, FWPS Superintendent Dr. Dani Pfeiffer said.

Middle schoolers technically have been at Evergreen since January, but this year will be their first full year at the new school. Students at Star Lake, meanwhile, are stepping into the elementary school for the first time.

In Kelli Thomason’s second grade classroom, students drew pictures and wrote about what they did over the summer, like playing basketball and going swimming. When they finish, they’d get to make a gallery of their creations and compliment each other’s work, like miniature art critics.

The kids chatted with each other at a low hum, discussing the new school and their summer activities. Like many teachers, Thomason was savoring every second of it. This is the calmest the students will be all year, she said.

“I won’t get this ever again, so I’m embracing it,” she said with a laugh. “They’re very calm on day one. They’re shy.”

Upstairs, students from third to fifth grade at the school are taking more advanced lessons, talking to each other a bit more and processing new depths to complicated emotions like embarrassment, pride and excitement.

One student stands alone in a classroom, telling his peers that he’s back to school in-person now.

“I was doing Zoom school for a while, but I got the vaccine, so I came back,” he said.

His friend, a girl with a big smile, stands up next to him: “And that made me happy,” she said, pausing for a moment as the whole classroom turns to face her. “… Because you’re my best friend!”

In another classroom, a teacher has the kids all stand up, and then sit down “if you watched Netflix over the summer,” “if you love math,” or “if you have a brother.”

One kid sits down and scathingly adds: “My brother’s a butthead.”

Many COVID-19 restrictions from the state Department of Health have waned since the onset of the pandemic in 2020. Students no longer need to quarantine or “test-to-stay” in school if they’re exposed to the virus, though those who test positive must still isolate for at least five days.

Students and staff with COVID symptoms have to immediately isolate and get tested. Schools still have to notify families of outbreaks in schools, although they have more leeway on how to do so.

Masks are optional in classrooms and school buses. And while DOH guidelines still call for physical distancing “where practical,” kids are able to congregate a little more comfortably than before, something Pfeiffer said helps them engage more with their lessons and achieve better outcomes.

“I think kids can be more like themselves,” Pfeiffer said. “They can interact with their peers in a more developmentally appropriate way.”

Here’s a big one: Starting this year, the school district can start holding in-person assemblies again.

“Think about a high school,” Pfeiffer. “School spirit (assemblies), battles between grade levels, all of that had to quell a little bit. We’re excited to have all of it back.”