A kindergarten student at Panther Lake Elementary raises her hand during attendance on the first day of in-person learning on March 15. Olivia Sullivan/the Mirror

A kindergarten student at Panther Lake Elementary raises her hand during attendance on the first day of in-person learning on March 15. Olivia Sullivan/the Mirror

Federal Way students return to the classroom

The first day of school is a big day under normal circumstances.

For dozens of kindergartens across the Federal Way district, their first day of school — ever — included mask wearing, social distancing and a lot of uncertainty.

Staff, educators and administrators have worked to implement a smooth transition back into classrooms — almost exactly one year to the day since Gov. Jay Inslee ordered schools to close for a two-week break. This March 16, 2020, closure announcement was later extended into a months-long closure.

Preschool, kindergarten and first-grade students in the Federal Way district returned to classrooms on March 15. The district offered families two choices, hybrid in-person learning or remote instruction, to select from in early January.

Outside of Panther Lake Elementary, parents remained in their cars as they dropped off their students, who then lined up six feet apart — or “enough room for an elephant to dance,” said Principal Tabatha Ritch — before heading into the school for a daily temperature check. Prior to a student’s arrival, staff members must confirm their guardians have completed the daily health screening form.

Colorful masks covered in sequins, popular cartoon characters and patterns covered students’ faces, but their eyes still smiled upon seeing familiar buildings, teachers and friends.

Ritch said having students return to classrooms is “a sign of hope in this complex time we’re all in.”

Seeing students in classroom seats again proved dreams do come true, she said. Dreams of students safely returning to in-person learning; of collectively defining the new normal; and of seeing these student-teacher relationships bloom “in real life,” Ritch added.

Who is returning to school?

Data from the district shows 58% of preschool students (314 students) have opted for hybrid learning while 42% (227 students) selected remote learning. Of these students:

For kindergartners, 46% of students selected hybrid (634 students) while 54% of students chose remote (745 students).

For first-graders, even fewer students at 42% (614 students) opted for hybrid while 58% of students remained in remote learning (847).

Data provided by the district also shows over half of white students have opted to return to classrooms in all grade levels.

However, for kindergarten and first grade levels, Black, Asian, Hispanic and Native Hawaiian students have preferred to remain in remote learning.

From the data, 62% of Black students in first grade are in remote learning while 38% have returned to in-person. Nearly 70% of students identifying as Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander in first grade are in remote learning compared to 31% of students in classroom learning.

Over the past few months, public health data has shown COVID-19 disproportionally affects communities of color, especially Black, Hispanic and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander residents of King County.

In the classroom

After washing their hands, students work in their classrooms at desks spaced apart. What once was a transition from classroom to Zoom is now the opposite.

First grade teacher Alyssa Natsiopoulos asked her students to fill out a calendar entry “just like we did on Zoom,” she said from behind a light pink-colored mask.

Teachers were only recently granted eligibility in the state’s vaccination phase plans after widespread concern over the safety of returning to classrooms. On March 2, Inslee announced all teachers and licensed child care workers in Washington are now eligible for COVID vaccines.

The COVID-19 vaccine is not a condition of employment for FWPS staff, therefore the district does not have a total count of staff members who have been vaccinated, said Kassie Swenson, chief of communications for FWPS.

Through a partnership with OmLife Health and Wellness Clinic, all district employees were provided an opportunity to get a vaccine and at least 764 staff members were vaccinated at one of three sessions offered at the district, Swenson said.

Some staff members accessed the vaccines through their healthcare provider or elsewhere.

Due to Inslee’s recent announcement requiring all Washington schools to provide in-person learning options by April 19, Federal Way Public Schools has sped up its return schedule.

Students in grade 2-3 are set to return March 29 and grades 4-5 return April 1. For grades 6-12, the district will offering in-person academic support after students’ current Zoom class schedule beginning April 19.

Parents and guardians must complete an online survey form to indicate if your child will be participating in the in-person supports. The deadline for the survey, which was sent directly to families, is at 11:55 p.m. Wednesday, March 24.


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A student at Panther Lake Elementary gets her temperature checked before the start of the in-person school session on March 15. Olivia Sullivan/the Mirror

A student at Panther Lake Elementary gets her temperature checked before the start of the in-person school session on March 15. Olivia Sullivan/the Mirror

Olivia Sullivan/the Mirror
First grade teacher Alyssa Natsiopoulos asks her students a question on March 15.

Olivia Sullivan/the Mirror First grade teacher Alyssa Natsiopoulos asks her students a question on March 15.

Students line up about six feet apart outside of Panther Lake Elementary for the first day of in-person learning on March 15. Olivia Sullivan/the Mirror

Students line up about six feet apart outside of Panther Lake Elementary for the first day of in-person learning on March 15. Olivia Sullivan/the Mirror

Data from Federal Way Public Schools shows what percentage of students in each grade and each racial identity have opted for either in-person or remote learning.

Data from Federal Way Public Schools shows what percentage of students in each grade and each racial identity have opted for either in-person or remote learning.

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