BRUSH PRAIRIE — Bowen Wolcott’s band room at Laurin Middle School for the final seven weeks of the school year is the school’s cafeteria.
And Monday, Battle Ground Public Schools’ first day of full-time in-person instruction since the pandemic shut down schools in March 2020, the band teacher met and listened to his students play for the first time without a Wi-Fi connection.
The focus of Monday was all about rhythm and timing for Wolcott and his seventh-grade band students. When the district began transitioning to hybrid learning for secondary schools in February, middle school electives — such as band — remained in full remote.
That’s changed now that the Battle Ground district has done away with hybrid instruction and officially welcomed students in all grades to in-person instruction daily this week. Wolcott’s students played in unison for the first time in 13 months, and the teacher was appreciative of the students’ focus and respect toward each other.
“It’s always an interesting thing to hear students for the first time,” he told the class, using a microphone, as each student sat safely apart. “Thank you for making this an enjoyable experience.”
Monday became as close to normal as possible for the county’s third-largest school district in a year filled with adaptability, changes and pivoting by eliminating hybrid instruction and expanding in-person learning full-time while allowing students the option of learning remotely. The district of nearly 12,000 students became one of the few districts in the region to extend full in-person instruction daily to all grades.
“This is fun,” seventh grader Carter Mabry said. “I get to be with my friends again.”
Gov. Jay Inslee last month allowed for K-12 schools the option reduce the physical distance between students in schools down to 3 feet in classrooms to match revised reopening guidance set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Six feet of spacing, however, still must be maintained in common areas at school and during activities where high exhalation occurs.
That includes the band, which is why folding chairs at Laurin are spaced out in safe distances in the cafeteria, and wind instruments and their players have specially designed coverings.
Trumpet player Kellie Cady admitted being around other band members again was a bit of a weird feeling after several months of playing solo from home.
“We’re used to not hearing anything besides ourselves,” the 12-year-old said.
Laurin principal Travis Drake said 580 students of the close to 700 students in grades 5 through 8 are now back on-campus simultaneously. And he instantly felt how great it is to have a crowded campus.
“It reminds you of how chaotic a middle school can be,” he said. “Just feeling that energy again is a lot of fun.”
While it’s the third learning model for students, staff and families to adjust to this school year, Drake also stressed how the full-time instructional model will do wonders for students’ social and emotional well-being. Districts are planning on full-time in-person instruction in the fall, pending COVID-19 rates. But in Battle Ground, it will have a seven-week head start.
“We’ve recognized through this the importance of the social connections kids have with each other that they’ve lacked,” Drake said. “The mental health piece is real, and we’ve seen it here. That’s what makes it so important — they have connections with peers, they have the connections with adults, and hopefully this will transition us into the fall where they get to have a normal school year.”
That’s a welcoming sign for eighth grader Camarin Rios. She and a handful of classmates spent part of their English Language Arts class outdoors on blankets going over the novel “Long Way Gone” under the guidance of student-teacher Megan Collins.
Rios said she found it difficult learning on a screen during remote and hybrid instruction; she’s a social person, she said, and feeds off her classmates. That energy was hard to miss Monday.
“Being face to face,” Rios said, “brings back that energy of being in school.”