OAK HARBOR, Wash. — About 2,900 middle and high school students in the Oak Harbor School District returned to in-person learning for the first time in 11 months on Tuesday.
The district, which has about 5,900 students in total, is the largest in western Washington so far to bring students across all grades back to the classroom since the coronavirus pandemic disrupted schools statewide last March.
You could tell right away on Tuesday that it was no typical first day of school by the sheer quiet in the classroom.
"I'm excited," said student Ashlyn LeClercq. "Being in person is so important for asking questions and understanding concepts. I think it will definitely be an adjustment to be back, but it will be beneficial as well."
Across the district, class sizes have been cut in half. Fresh air from outside is circulated through the schools five times an hour.
Students are given a map to help them navigate school safely, including one-way hallways to minimize contact between periods and orange barrels that serve as makeshift roundabouts to keep kids pointed in the right direction.
Teachers can volunteer to get tested for COVID-19 every week, but union president Mike Fisher wishes they had more options.
"Obviously, I would feel more comfortable if the state opened up vaccinations because that's a big, huge topic among my members, right now," he said.
Not everyone is comfortable with the return to classrooms. Eight teachers and 302 students have opted out of coming back.
Superintendent Lance Gibbon said there have been just a few isolated infections since school reopened for kindergarten through 6th grade in the fall with zero spread of the disease.
The return of so many students at once is a bit of an experiment, but one that Gibbon believes will be successful.
"We've had about 2,700 students in school and about 800 staff members attending every day for the past four or five months. We know what works because we've already done it," Gibbon said.
While students have been stuck at home for the past 11 months, there have been some positives to come from the pandemic.
One of them is a project that two engineering students, Mia Winstead and Ashlyn LeClercq, developed using a 3-D printer. It's a device that slips under your mask and redirects airflow to keep your glasses from fogging up.
They hope someday soon doctors will use them during surgery once the fog of coronavirus lifts.
"It feels good to be back, to be part of this team and be able to create something that hopefully will help many people," Mia said.
There are also plans in case of an outbreak at a school.
Oak Harbor staff will be closely monitoring students for the rest of the school year. If transmission of the virus is detected in a school, it will be closed and students will return to full-time distance learning for at least two weeks.