March 2020 to March 2021: A unique year of academics, to say the least. As Nooksack Valley Schools, like so many other districts across Washington state and the nation, transitioned to closed doors and distance learning and then back to welcoming students onto campus in a way never done before, the lessons learned by teachers, administrators and students offer a fresh perspective on education.
“Every time I think about what happened a year ago on March 13 (2020) and what we were able to accomplish just a few weeks later, it was remarkable,” says Cindy Stockwell, Nooksack Valley assistant superintendent. “People stepped up. We would never have been able to anticipate what we were able to do. Teachers were making videos, livestreaming and it all happened in a short amount of time. We were learning as we were going and I can’t say enough about being proud of our staff.”
Within weeks last spring, Nooksack Valley had moved to distance learning and this fall welcomed students back to the classrooms. At the same time, Nooksack Valley Schools transitioned to feeding every student in the community, a huge undertaking and shift for the food service staff. “What they did was quite extraordinary,” Stockwell says. “In a week or two they flipped to feeding every kid who needed it. That was amazing.”
The work of the nurses shifted too, including contact tracing and health checks at every building.
“We are small and flexible and always have been and this tested our mettle in being able to do that,” Stockwell says. Moving forward, she expects the benefits of one-to-one technology for the students will get incorporated into the classroom and the ease of virtual meetings will create more efficiencies for teachers and staff. The district also has worked with community partners Valley Drug, Nooksack Tribal Medical Center and Sea Mar to get vaccines to every staff member who wants one, increasing community connections.
Now with K-5 students in full-day school four days each week, the middle school students in school for four half days each week and the high schoolers attending school for two full days with additional distance learning, check out what building principals say has stood out most to them about lessons learned over the last year.
Nooksack Valley High School
Principal Matt Galley and Assistant Principal Collin Buckley
“I’m proud of the community connections we’ve made,” Galley says. “Collin, counselors and a handful of teachers have made and continue to make home visits at a much higher level. We’ve strengthened the connection by increasing technology capacity as well, learning how to integrate technology into the classroom that will continue to be valuable even when we are able to return to normal.”
Buckley says that building connections in the community has been important, as has the time in the school to help bring departments into closer cooperation. “We have become nimble and fluid as a system overall,” he says. “We’ve been able to think creatively about the what and how of student success and grown years in our thinking. The shift to one-to-one tech and how to do it well is one major example.”
He has had teachers, one with 42 years of experience, tell him it feels like they are a first-year teacher and they find that exciting.
Nooksack Valley Middle School
Principal Joel VanderYacht
“We have learned the value of personal connection and that students perform better for teachers when they have a relationship and connect on a daily basis,” VanderYacht says. “While online learning works for some, the ability to come into school and learn on a daily basis makes teachers’ and students’ hearts full.”
He says that middle school students enjoy being around their friends and it has been great to have laughter return to the building. But he’s also aware that the one-to-one technology enabled them to continue with learning and has shown to be more important for some subjects, such as language arts.
Principal Megan Vigre
Starting the day by greeting every student as they walk through health checks has slowed the start of school and set a pleasant, relationship-first tone for the day, Vigre says. Teachers have seen students learn to self-manage their learning through distance learning and staff have been able to look at normal routines and modify and adjust for the benefit of all.
Vigre says teachers across the district benefit from videos created for mini lessons, with new teachers seeing quality instruction modeled and students having access to information as a pre-teach lesson to improve understanding. Video lessons have also enabled students unable to get to school to participate in learning.
Principal Katie Brown
“I think we have learned what we already knew to be true, that fostering relationships, routines and resilience can help us maximize growth for students and staff,” Brown says. By staying in cohorts throughout the day because of health protocols, she says it has helped develop classroom communities where everyone takes care of each other. “Our students are thriving academically because students feel safe and cared for,” she says. The cohorts have also produced new friendships and students have shown an increased flexibility and patience with each other.
Principal Kevin DeVere
By changing the way school happens over the last year, DeVere says it exposed inequities that already existed and forced staff to address them. At Everson they worked hard to bring school to the community, whether delivering food, tech support, school supplies, hot spots or books, even holding teacher-family conferences in front yards.
“While we’ve been apart during the pandemic, we have also never been closer,” DeVere says. “These are silver linings, and there are others, that we want to seriously consider becoming a part of whatever normal may look like in the future.”