Learning during the pandemic

It was a year full of lost experiences and unique opportunities, the SKSD superintendent says.

By Mike De Felice

Special to Kitsap Daily News

PORT ORCHARD – After a series of adjustments and struggles, a once-in-a-lifetime school year comes to an end Saturday for South Kitsap High School seniors.

Even the weekend graduation ceremony is out of the ordinary. It will take place at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, normally the site of Tacoma Rainiers baseball and OL Reign women’s soccer matches. Instead of shaking hands with school administrators at the podium, seniors will be handed their diplomas at home plate.

South Kitsap School District Superintendent Tim Winter took time out this week to review what has been a unique school year for K-12 students, parents and teachers, to say the least. It wasn’t a year anyone wants to repeat, but the district’s chief administrator said there were some positive takeaways from a school year in which COVID infections finally began to decline with the introduction of vaccines so that the task of educating students could move closer to normalcy.

“There were so many changes that took place and variations of what [educators] were doing based on health guidelines. We had to be flexible and resilient in order to meet the needs of our students. We really had to reinvent ourselves in a lot of ways,” Winter recounted.

“I’m proud of how successful we were in being flexible and resilient.”

At the point of the initial shutdown in March 2020, school officials believed that classroom activities would resume after a few weeks. Repeated delays followed, however, due to concerns about the safety of students and staff. In September, even the start of in-person classes this school year had to be put on hold.

“Again, our focus the entire time was the health and safety of our staff and students because we were in a pandemic and that was our priority,” Winter said.

With the advent of 2021, the proverbial dark clouds over the district finally began to part: “We finally got our students back in January and February.”

Despite all the changes the school district had to impose on staff members and students and their families, Winter acknowledged how well everyone endured.

“I would say what impressed me is the way our students, staff and community rallied.”

But any achievements that were accomplished didn’t come easy. The school board had its share of contentious meetings over the optimal timing in which to return to in-class teaching. A number of teachers voiced health concerns about bringing students back prematurely to the school buildings. And numerous working parents expressed frustration over having to contend with having their youngsters home during the week and the ensuing childcare challenges.

“Really, I give our parents a lot of kudos. They had to adapt, too, and it was not convenient in a lot of cases,” he said.

“But I think all of us together — collectively as a community — came together and did what we needed to do.”

Missing the student experience

The most exasperating part of the school year centered on the loss that students experienced, Winter said.

“I think the frustrating part was that students missed their teachers and their school. In K-12, there are a lot of things that happen in the school building and around school — social things — but they are really important. Those are things I think our students missed out on. It was hard and we are not going to get that back.

“Think about the seniors. Last year’s seniors missed out on a chunk at the end of the year, but this year’s seniors essentially missed the entire year and things that make school great.”

Losses for high schoolers included missing homecoming, spirit week, dress-up days, assemblies and dances. An “abbreviated” prom was held Saturday but the normally highly anticipated event had to be scaled back due to health regulations.

“When you are 17 or 18 years old, you are in a classroom with your peers and it’s the last time a lot of these kids will be together. Some of them have been together for 12 and 13 years. They missed out on that face-to-face socialization.

“They connected virtually and were very good at that, but I just think they have missed being together. The subtleties of high school, hanging out together before and after school and between classes. The daily activities of a school year just didn’t happen.”

Still, Winter came away from this year impressed with how students, forced by circumstances into a virtual education experience that separated them from friends for much of the year, made the best of the situation.

“Students had to adapt and learn in different ways. And not every student was successful — we know that. But we are seeing some results that showed that our students still learned. They became independent in their learning and, in a lot of ways, increased their communication skills and their time management, he noted.

A typical school year runs from September to June. Looking back, Winter was asked how long the last 10 months actually felt like to him?

“Well, a lot longer than 10 months,” he chuckled.

“It felt like the last two school years blurred together, even though we had a summer off. Everyone was working so hard to see what we could do to get our students back in the fall [of 2020].

“We are really encouraging people to get some time away this summer because it didn’t feel like we had a lot of time off last summer,” he said.

The superintendent, like students, longs for a return to a normal school year next fall. A typical year would also delight school staff, he said.

“In the past year, [educators] have realized how much they appreciate the work they do. We do this because of the students and the connection we have with them. When you take that [connection] component away and you put them on a screen, it takes away from why we do what we do. Any opportunity we had this spring to connect with students reminded us of why we are doing what we are doing.

“It’s good work and fun work, but it’s much more fun and rewarding when we are all present together versus present on a screen.”