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'Perseverance' was the theme of a COVID-19 school year for local families

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After a school year filled with COVID-19 frustrations due to virtual education and hybrid classrooms, three Cowlitz County families said they learned valuable lessons in perseverance and self-advocacy that outweighed academic gains and losses.

Sarah Carman said at the start of this year, she told her freshman daughter Christine that “this is the year we find out what you’re made of.”

“She learned to persevere this year,” Carman said. “This year what we told her our goals at the beginning of the year were survive the year and make it through with your head held high.”

Kelso Virtual Academy eighth-grader Sadie Musser said while fully online school “was a lot different than I thought it would be, it was definitely better than the programs they had at the end of last year.”

“It was a good experience to have that different way of learning,” she said.

In Castle Rock, freshman Brookelyn Alblinger is “just ready for it to be over.”

“This year has been so slow and so fast at the same time,” she said, as she missed out on sports seasons, dances and other milestones.

These three families the Daily News followed through a COVID-19 school year found both silver linings and significant obstacles in the journey. As life slowly returns to pre-pandemic normal, they’re grateful for the lessons they learned, but ready to move on.

The Alblingers: Castle Rock

Brookelyn Alblinger returned to her Castle Rock High School classrooms in February, and said she’s back on top of her assignments, but gets bored during the extra-long classes that are meant to reduce the number of times students pass in the halls.

“90-minute classes are too much time,” she said. “I’m done with everything so I just sit there.”

She likes the longer classes for wood shop, allowing her to make a birdhouse and an Adirondack chair this year, but said she’s ready to go back to a more normal schedule, even if it means waking up early and going to school five days a week.

“I just hope there’s no masks next year. I don’t like that. I smile at people but you don’t see it,” she said.

Kari Alblinger said in her experience as a teacher, “it’s a disconnect between the kids and the teachers too, having that mask on. It’s crazy how much we get from each other’s faces.”

Alblinger said she’s excited for her daughter “to start high school for real, one year later.”

Next year, Brookelyn is changing up her classes and picking up more electives. She also hopes her sports seasons are normal, because sports helped her mental health, which was been up and down over the year of lockdowns and remote schooling.

This summer, she’s working to get her driver’s license and hopes to see friends and participate in summer youth group activities. Alblinger is planning a sweet 16 birthday party with Brookelyn’s friends.

Alblinger said she had noticed her daughter’s friends group shrink, and said the pandemic made Brookelyn more introverted.

Overall, this first year of high school was “not how I expected it to be,” but Brookelyn said she learned to be more independent and entertain herself.

“Not being able to go to school the first semester, it was hard but it was nice sleeping in,” Brookelyn said. “And it was nice to go back just so I could see my friends and stuff. I’m really glad we got to do sports. Even though it was a shorter season, it gave me something to do instead of just staying home.”

The Carmans: Longview

Kessler fifth-grader Rem Carman has been “in the classroom every moment he’s been allowed in the classroom,” mom Sarah Carman said, as it was difficult for him to get his therapies remotely and to adjust to the rapid COVID-19 schedule changes.

“He loves being back in the classroom,” she said. “It’s way better than not being in the classroom but he also hates having to get up early in the morning, and he’s not a fan of homework.”

As for freshman Christine, her excitement for online-only school through K12 Online Academy disappeared as the program struggled to handle an influx of students, leading her to change her mind about virtual high school.

“She’s always wanted to do online school so she was super stoked about it, and now she’s like never again,” Carman said. “She’s switching back to in person, but we’re moving, so it won’t be (Mark Morris) high school.”

Christine struggled with computer problems and to get her teachers’ attention when she needed help, Carman said. She’s mostly used Google to do homework, because she can no longer log into her online classes.

But she also did several independent projects, Carman said, like a research essay on Eliza Hamilton after she got interested in the musical “Hamilton.” She plans to turn it in to past teachers for feedback.

“It’s been an isolating year for her, but she’s flourished,” Carman said. “I feel like she’s met her goals for the year. We’ve learned other, bigger lessons. She truly has learned to preserver and to advocate for herself.”

Rem is re-learning many of the social skills he lost during remote schooling, Carman said, and working with his special education teachers in person has been “huge for him.”

“We’ve noticed things like having to remind him to say please and thank you, that you need to not interrupt conversation,” she said. “All of these things where we were doing so good right before COVID hit we’re back re-training.”

But Rem is also dedicated to being “really good in the classroom” and Carman said she and her husband Jeff learned that Rem is “stronger than we give him credit for and has more skills than we gave him credit for.”

“Rem has learned to adapt in a crazy way that we would never have anticipated and he did it,” she said. “Now he’s like, ‘OK the rules have shifted.’ He’s not quite neurotypical in how he shifts, but he understands that the rules can change when before it was the rule and it couldn’t change.”

Even with the silver linings that Carman prefers to focus on, she said her family is ready for the school year to close.

“It’s finally coming to an end and we’re so ready for it to end,” she said. “We’re just exhausted. We’re praying that next year we don’t have to deal with this again.”

The Hight-Mussers: Kelso

Of the three Hight-Musser children, fifth-grader Lincoln is the only one who has turned in all his work for the year. Freshman Lexi has one more physical education log to complete and eighth-grader Sadie has to finish the math assignments she put off until the end.

They liked the fully virtual school, just as they have all year, and said they were interested in trying it for another year, but were taking the summer to both see what happens with COVID-19 and decide what mode of learning they prefer.

“I really liked it,” Lexi said. “I found a system that was working for me for a while. So that was cool, and without the pandemic I wouldn’t have gone into KVA. It introduced me to a new form of school, and I do better at it.”

Lexi hopes to be in KVA again next year, get her driver’s license and a job during the day while other students are in school, “but it might change. Maybe I’ll make new friends and want to go back in person.”

Lincoln struggled with some program bugs, as the system was just expanded to younger grades, but he much prefers KVA to in-person school. He likes not having to show his work, but sister Sadie said she prefers to show her work, which is a challenge on the computer.

Sadie said while she likes not waking up early, as she prepares to enter high school “there’s a lot to consider if I want to do it again. I’m still trying to decide that.”

'I just want normal': As students return to school, they experience a different world

From a parent’s view, “the kids definitely got out of it what they put into it,” Laura Hight said.

“After a few months all three of them found a groove that they were able to prioritize their work to get it done in a timely manner,” she said. “Once that balance was established it was good for me, they did a really nice job.”

In addition, Hight said they learned to be more self-sufficient around the house, doing laundry, dishes and other chores without being asked, and she noticed improvement in their skill with technology.

However, if any of her children choose to do KVA for another year, Hight said she will sign them up for sports or other social activities.

Sadie said it’s been nice to start seeing friends again, and she wants to get back into playing her viola. Lexi’s friends are mostly online now or made outside of school, but “I think it works better for me when I separate my school from friends it’s less drama.”

Most of Lincoln’s interactions with friends were already online, so he said not much has changed over the past year. He did learn how to manage his time better and not procrastinate, as did Lexi and Sadie.

“I learned to not put things off until the end of the deadline, to grin and bear it and do things even if you don’t want to, and to not make excuses about stuff because it’s so easy when no one’s watching you to make excuses,” Sadie said.

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