'It's not the same': Teachers face distance learning for rest of year

SEATTLE - On Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee made the difficult decision to keep 1.2 million students in Washington home for the remainder of the school year, joining more than a dozen other states.

He said the state could not take the chance of opening on-site instruction this year, jeopardizing the success the state has had slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Inslee and State Schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal noted that distance learning will not be as effective as being in the classroom. It'll be up to Washington's teachers to bridge the gap as much as possible.

"This is it! This is where I teach my class, in the middle of the kitchen, right next to the baby's changing table. It's very glamorous," Kim Bielski said with a laugh, gesturing at her surroundings over Zoom.

Bielski is a first grade teacher at Little Cedars Elementary School in Snohomish. She's navigating teaching her first graders from afar while also raising her own two children at home.

Her kitchen looks a lot different than the now-empty classroom where she typically pours her heart into teaching her students. While that room sits empty, in her home she tries to be on call at all times, answering emails and phone calls and arranging video meetings with students. She's getting creative, as teachers do, but it only goes so far.

"It's not the same when you aren't with the kids one on one," she said. "When you're with them you have a real good feel for how their day is going, what things they understand, what they might need help with. Differentiating, deciding who needs what in the moment and pulling those small groups and helping children one-on-one and really getting to what they need individually. We can't do that as well."

Bielski said she also worries for kids where school is their safe place that provides consistency in their lives.

As a working mother juggling her 16-month old and a first-grader of her own at home, she also relates to parents tasked with home schooling at the same time.

"I think grace is the most important thing we can give to each other," she said. "I truly think everyone is doing their best, we just never have had to do this before."

Leading up to today, Bielski said it was becoming increasingly clear that canceling in-person instruction for the school year was a possibility, but for her and her colleagues, the final decision is heartbreaking.

"We did not know that it was the last day with our class and that's really hard because if we had known that it was the last day with our class, we would have done something to celebrate or put closure on the year for the kids," she said. "So that's something that's really tugging at our hearts."

Still, she said the most important thing is that the students and their families stay healthy, the driving force behind the state's decision.