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Bellingham high schools recap year of education during pandemic

Schools hope to return to normal in upcoming school year

Students enter the front of the historic Bellingham High School. As a new year approaches, school faculty and students hope things will be back to normal upon return. // Courtesy of Bellingham Public Schools

Since Washington reopened on June 30, COVID-19 restrictions seem to be coming to an end. As the state reopens, principals, teachers and students at Bellingham high schools reflect on the obstacles COVID-19 presented.

Nancy Barga, assistant principal at Options High School, said March 13 the district told all faculty to grab their belongings from their offices, because there would be six weeks off from school. That six weeks turned into months.

“I thought we would be back in session after spring break of 2020 … I never imagined we would be out for an entire year,” Lori French, a Spanish teacher for Bellingham High School, wrote in an email.

Dana Smith, communications manager for Bellingham Public Schools said work groups gathered in the summer of 2020 to discuss what the new school year would look like.

“How are we going to do instruction? How are we going to get people internet access? How is the schedule going to be?” Smith asked. “Because we do not want kids being on Zoom for eight hours a day, but as a public school, the school day has to be a certain length by state law.”

As in-person classes stopped and virtual learning became the new norm, Zoom proved an essential part of learning. But online learning came with difficulties.

“It was harder for me to learn through Zoom, as I would simply get distracted with the things inside my house,” Damaris Cota Gutierrez, a recent graduate of Bellingham High School, said. “Trying to keep up with what teachers said was hard, especially trying to take notes.” 

COVID-19 had an emotional impact on students who were away from family and worried about family getting the virus, Christina Van Wingerden, educational specialist in Learning in Communities and Schools, said.

Barga said the option to have Zoom meetings with counselors was especially important for students during home learning because of the way the pandemic affected mental health.

“It was very difficult,” Barga said. “On top of this [COVID-19], you have the layer of [students saying] ‘My parents just lost their job, we are being evicted, I am trying to share the internet with five other siblings and it's not working.’ Everybody is depressed, and they’re supposed to be a learner.” 

‘Wellness Wednesdays’ were incorporated into the school for mental health assistance. Counselors were available and intervention specialists held optional virtual meetings, French said.

The beginning weeks of March 2021 high school students were officially able to go back to class.

French said once students were back in person, there were many COVID-19 rules to be followed.  

Students were required to wear masks, she said. No food or drinks were allowed. Arrows were placed in the school to indicate which way to travel down halls with the addition of one-way staircases. A wipe was given to each student to clean their chairs and tables as they entered and left classrooms. All students and staff had to complete an attestation form online to attest that they had no COVID-19 symptoms.

Barga said being back in person, even with the addition of new COVID-19 rules, was a big sigh of relief. She said she and other faculty agree in-person teaching is the best option for an educational setting.

One highlight of the return to in-person school was an in-person graduation for the class of 2021. 

“I was very happy that I was able to be part of an in-person graduation,” Gutierrez said. “I think throughout the past year with [COVID-19] that was the only thing I looked forward to because last year's graduation made me sad to see that the seniors last year were not able to get an actual graduation.”

June 30 marked the day that Washington would be officially 100% open with no COVID-19 restrictions.

“I hope we look at the future on how we can create a community virtually,” Wingerden said. “[There is] a sense of belonging even if a student can not physically be there.”

Juan Baldovinos Jr.

Juan Baldovinos Jr. is a senior at Western Washington University, majoring in Journalism in the News/ Editorial BA program. Juan is a part of The Front and focuses on news occurring in Whatcom County. When not reporting Juan enjoys spending time with his family, and watching sports. Juan has goals to be a sports journalist. You can contact Juan at 

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