It is not a normal back-to-school cycle, especially given the abnormal circumstances that already exist in Point Roberts, Washington.
About 1,300 people live in Point Roberts, a small town just below the 49th parallel. It is surrounded by water on three sides and shares its northern border with Canada, but the town is actually part of Whatcom County.
For many youth living in Point Roberts, school is in Canada, while home is in America. The border between them closed in March and won't reopen until at least Sept. 22.
“It's frustrating and disappointing, because you see your teammates having fun and you see on social media platforms and you're not a part of it, and you feel like you're forgotten almost,” says 15-year-old Grace Hettinga, as she sits just feet away from the shared border. Her brother, 13-year-old Noah, is a hockey standout who hasn’t been able to sniff the ice all summer.
However, the teens live with their parents in Point Roberts, which only has a K-3 elementary school. Most of the town's students attend classes in Blaine, Washington or B.C. That meant crossing at least one international border, and sometimes two, on a daily basis. Now they’re cut off, unless they want to think about starting a new life, under quarantine, in British Columbia.
“I think that's the base year because it's when scouts start to look. So it's, you know, the year that I really need to make my mark,” says Jack Proctor, a 16-year-old who attends a private Vancouver prep school. Jack’s school is also returning to full in-person classes.
His mother Sandra gets emotional about what the COVID-related closure means. “It's frustrating and it will break apart families," she said. "He's worked so hard at his sports. I don't want to think about someone else making his lunch and hugging him at night and we won't maybe be able to see him till Christmas if it doesn't change. So I feel like they've been forgotten. It's hard.”
They are among the group of Whatcom County families who are asking for an exemption to the months-long closure, so the kids can resume their academic and athletic pursuits.
Christopher Carleton is the Whatcom County Fire Chief for District Five, but has also been leading an effort to raise awareness of this small exclave below the 49th parallel.
Carleton sent a letter several weeks ago to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Donald Trump, asking for a change.
“That's going to affect hundreds to thousands of children who have met or made their educational goals and athletic goals on the Canadian side. You know, the other thing that we need is reciprocal,” says Carleton, while standing near the border crossing. “We're so regionally isolated, it makes it that much more compounding for us.”
Carleton is quick to point out that his department helped administer COVID-19 tests to more than half the town of 1,300 people, and there have been no positives cases reported.
Gov. Inslee also sent a letter to Trudeau asking for a special allowance.
In the past, Point Roberts students who attend Blaine public schools would be bused through both border crossings. With Blaine starting on remote learning, that isn’t much of an issue right now.
One suggestion has been to allow the students who attend school in B.C. or Whatcom County to be issued a transit pass, similar to what Canada is allowing for Alaskans.
The only other option right now is for students to find a different place to live in Canada, perhaps without their parents, and quarantine before the start of school.
“Just to get back to that kind of normalcy, that's, that's what we want. Yeah, it's just like, I see good friends of mine. They're all together doing what they would normally and I'm just not too far away and I can't do anything that they can. Can't cross, can't play my sports, and I just feel like I'm behind them in a way,” said Sean Heppner, who will be a freshman at the University of British Columbia.
His brother Ryan, a 16-year-old, also has attended school in B.C. Both are baseball standouts, with older brother Sean expected to play baseball at UBC in the spring, and Ryan’s school will resume in-person learning.
“We feel that, if you're basically saying, you know, their education is non-essential, really what you're saying is our children are not essential. You're telling my child and both my daughters that they're not essential,” says parent Rena Andreoli. “I really would like to say that it is important that people have a geographic understanding of where Point Roberts is situated, so that they don't marry us into this big group of Washington state and all the other border towns. We aren't like any other border town. We basically exist inside of Canada."
She continued, “We don't want to break up our families. Marriages don't want to break up. Kids don't want to be away from their siblings. It's like cutting the cord. It's cutting at the core of family values.”
The Heppners, Proctors, Hettingas and other Point families say they're now considering relocating, or separating, in order to start the school year on time. Each family said they've been told there will be no exceptions for families, or students, which used to commute across the border to school.
Mary-Liz Power, who is a spokesperson for Canadian Minister for Public Safety Bill Blair, issued a statement to KING 5 that referenced a previous request from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee for a change in border conditions.
The statement said:
"We would like to thank Governor Inslee for his letter. Our government has taken significant measures at our borders to keep our communities safe throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
"With very limited exemptions, all persons entering Canada – no matter their country of origin or mode of entry – MUST isolate themselves for 14 days if they have symptoms of or confirmed COVID-19 or quarantine themselves for 14 days if they do not have symptoms of COVID-19.
"Exemptions to quarantine requirements for healthy, non-symptomatic residents of Point Roberts, WA for whom crossing the border on a day-to-day basis is essential for work and daily life will still be permitted. Leisure travel through the United States is not one of the exemptions to the requirement to quarantine.
"Non-essential travel is still prohibited at this time and the current measures in place at the Canada-US border are not set to expire until September 21st. Decisions on admissibility are made by a Border Services Officer based on the information available to them at the time of processing.
"We would like to thank Canadians for their patience during this unprecedented pandemic. Our government will continue doing what is necessary to keep Canadians safe and will base our decisions on the best public health evidence available.”