A decal of a lemon tree adorns the wall next to the main office at Riverside Christian School (RCS), catching the eye of people as they walk through the front door. Above the tree hangs the four words that have been adopted by the Washougal education provider as its theme for the 2020-21 school year: Making lemons into lemonade.
“Each classroom will have a stack of paper lemons,” said RCS principal Tami Wright. “When someone sees a student doing something that shows that they’re working past their issue to create something positive, they will write the person’s name and what they did on (a lemon) and put it on the tree. Then at the end of the week we put them all in a little basket and I’ll read them out loud to the whole school, and everybody celebrates the cool things that people are doing.”
In other words, RCS students and teachers are trying to make the best out of less-than-ideal situations, a fitting mindset for a school year that is sure to present students and teachers with a variety of challenges.
RCS, a small, private school affiliated with Washougal’s Seventh Day Adventist Church, opened for in-person educational services on Sept. 8 after finishing the 2019-20 school year with remote learning due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
“I think all my kids were so excited to connect to all their new friends and have that in-person instruction again because it’s so much easier,” said Kristina Richards, RCS’ business manager and mother of three students. “Parents are not teachers. They do the best they can, but I feel like kids don’t have as much respect for their parents (in a teaching role) as they do for their teachers.”
The school implemented a series of safety protocols to keep children and adults virus-free.
Before entering the school each morning, students stand on arrows, made out of red tape and spaced out every six feet in front of the building. At the front of the line, teachers take temperatures with a no-touch thermometer and allow students to enter the school upon the confirmation of a healthy body heat reading.
Classroom chairs are meticulously spaced 6 feet apart. Teachers and students 5 years and older wear masks at all times. Teachers and volunteers routinely disinfect surfaces and objects with a “fogger.” Recess and bathroom break times are staggered, and the stalls and sinks in the bathrooms are designated for separate use, labeled by grade level.
“It’s working well so far,” Wright said. “Kids are always really adaptive. They are all so happy to actually be in school and not be at home. They feel lucky to be here.”
The changes have also caused a fundamental shift to the school’s education model. RCS is known for its project-based learning approach, which emphasizes group instruction, collaboration and positive skill-building.
Pre-pandemic, the classrooms at RCS featured couches, large tables, raised work surfaces and bar stools for students, who selected their preferred seat at the beginning of each day.
“It was kind of like a coffeehouse. Kids would sit at the table in groups or whatever, and they could go and make themselves a cup of tea if they wanted to. So this,” said Wright, waving her hand toward the fifth-through-eighth-grade classroom’s 17 desks — “is not how we teach. This does not go along with our philosophy of education at all. We do not keep kids separate. This creates problems –or as I call them now, ‘opportunities’ — because we have trained our kids and ourselves that we can rely on each other, that every person has a strength, and we work together as a team. (Now they have to be more) individual and independent. It changes that focus. They aren’t able to work together to solve a problem.”
“My style of teaching (does not involve students) sitting at desks all day, so this is very different. I feel that I have to be even more creative in other ways to engage them,” RCS kindergarten and first-grade teacher Athena Mason added. “The best way that they learn is through hands-on (projects) and interacting with each other at a social level, and it’s very hard to do that this way. Having to social-distance all day is a challenge. Our school is not made to be that way, and the kids don’t learn that way.”
Mason added that the process of generating innovative learning strategies to fit the new model is “for sure a work in progress.”
“Every day, I think, gets a little bit better,” she said. “We’re focusing on the social part of it and talking about what has changed and how we feel about those changes and the things that are good at school — meeting new friends, (learning) how you can be a friend from a social-distancing perspective as best as you can. But it’s always changing. What might work this week might not work next week. That brings on different challenges. Everything each week has been something new.”
The changes have affected the teachers in other ways, Wright said.
“They are feeling really overwhelmed with the additional amount of preparation that they’re having to do,” she said. “The teachers feel so much extra pressure, and that bleeds into the classroom. Not knowing what’s going to happen the next day weighs heavily on them.”
Sixty-one percent of the school’s 57 students are new, with many of them coming from public schools, Wright said. RCS is at full capacity and retains a large waiting list of students whose parents have indicated they would prefer their children to receive an in-person education.
“Our biggest challenge is that (even though) we lost some families, we had huge interest – nonstop phone calls, emails, tours. We opened up the school and the classrooms, and answered the questions,” Richards said. “Now we’re full, but still getting a lot of phone calls. I get a lot of people saying, ‘My child is struggling with e-learning. We have to work and don’t have time to teach them. Please accept (my child). I wish you had a bigger school.'”