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How one Seattle school handles being back in class

K-2 is back at St. Joseph School in Capitol Hill. 

School reopening: While Seattle Public Schools remain closed without a clear roadmap for an eventual return to the classroom, St. Joseph School, a Catholic school in Capitol Hill, has started up again with limited class sizes — and after extensive safety planning.

While the Jesuit school (about 550 students from kindergarten through eighth grade) does not have the logistical challenges that many public schools face, it’s interesting to get a look at a local school that is open again and see how the return is being handled on a small scale.

“Our facilities department has done an amazing job following all the expectations and the protocols,” said Dorothy Ambuske, a 23-year teaching vet. She is teaching one of the five second-grade classes, which includes a group of kids staying remote by choice. (There are usually just three second-grade classes, but that has been expanded to accommodate the smaller COVID class sizes and the remote group.)

“Normally in the morning, [the kids] come in just all at one time, but we have a tiered arrival so they’re kind of coming in small waves, so not everyone’s coming in at one time,” explains Ambuske. 

“Nobody’s out in the hallway unmonitored, and their desks are all 6 feet apart.”

“They’ve done such a good job just because they’re so happy to be back in person, and we do a lot more brain breaks, where they do movements in their area, just so that they do get up and move around,” Ambuske says. 

Rosemary Petrone, a Madison Park parent whose family moved to Seattle in 2016, is delighted with her kids’ new school, which she turned to this summer after she felt that public school had failed to address remote schooling adequately. Before the coronavirus crisis hit, “parochial school was not on our radar,” she says. 

“Before that, we were committed to staying in public, and the [remote learning] situation didn’t improve,” said Petrone. It became, “Something’s got to change right now,” she says.

Her second-grade son, William, is currently back in the classroom. She’s hoping that her third-grader, Lucy, will be able to leave remote schooling behind soon, too, as the reopening school rolls out third grade in-person classes this academic year. 

She’s particularly enjoying car rides home with her son. “I get to hear every detail and how good lunch was, and ‘I made this new friend today.’ And ‘we learned this’ … and he’s just absorbing it and absolutely loves it.”

There are a lot of rules involved in getting kids to school in this COVID-conscious environment, but the family is finding the extra time worth it. “Every morning we have to fill out a COVID release, saying that nobody has any of the symptoms. And we have to screenshot that and show that when we drop off.” 

“We have to wear a mask when we drop off and pick up,” Petrone says. “We do not get out of the car. They take his temperature before he’s allowed in the school.”

“The kids are required to have a mask on them and two backups in their backpack,” she says.

And each day her second-grader gets a chance to have recess — with rules. “I know it’s hard at that age to not touch your friend or high-five, but from what I can tell they’re doing a great job,” says Petrone.  

The school is consulting King County Public Health regularly — as well as CDC guidelines — to make sure it’s following best practices and to get advice, says Patrick Fennessy, the head of school. In the current setup, the staff recognizes that it’s “all hands on deck,” he says. 

“I go up every single day to a second-grade classroom with my N95 mask on and my goggles and my gloves and I read to the second-graders while they eat their lunch,” he said. (He’s also a parent at the school and has a child in kindergarten and a child in second grade.) 

The school has taken lots of precautions, like exhaust fans added to each classroom and no more than two kids allowed into the bathroom at a time, as well as separation of kids into their classroom cohorts out on the playground.  Hands-free hand-sanitation stations have been set up in many locations inside the reopening school, according to Ambuske. Lunch is eaten at desks, not in the lunchroom, and it’s the only time that kids are allowed to take their masks off. (The teacher says at this point she adds a face shield over her mask for added protection.)

Each classroom’s students wear one color of penny at recess, so that separation and distancing between classrooms can easily be enforced. Each class also has separate play equipment, like jump ropes and balls. 

Ambuske has 17 kids in her class, which the reopening school’s facilities team found is the maximum her classroom space could allow while keeping 6 feet between desks. Three kids of her 20 have opted to stay remote and do lessons online with the school’s PE teacher now. (And all students who traveled over the Thanksgiving holiday returned to remote schooling for two weeks so that they could quarantine before returning to the physical classrooms.) 

“It’s great to be with them and be with just their energy, and they’re doing such a good job, honestly, of keeping their masks on and keeping distance,” says Ambuske.

“I’ve been so impressed with the kids and how resilient they are.”

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About the Author

Jillian O'Connor

Jillian O’Connor is managing editor of the Seattle's Child print magazine. She lives in Seattle with her husband, two sons and a dog named after the Loch Ness Monster.