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Inside Woodlawn: Students return to in-person learning with new challenges

Woodlawn teachers and students featured in KGW's series 'Inside Woodlawn' explain what it’s like to be back in school in this strange new normal.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Since the fall of 2019, KGW Investigative reporter Cristin Severance and photojournalist Gene Cotton have followed the students and staff at Woodlawn Elementary School in Northeast Portland. They launched the docuseries “Inside Woodlawn” with the goal to spend one year embedded in one school.

No one knew how drastically the world would change or that the project would continue well beyond the one-year mark.

After months of deeply personal stories about everything from gentrification to being an undocumented student, came a worldwide pandemic and the social unrest after the death of George Floyd. Students and staff handled difficult conversations about race, as well as the struggles of distance learning. Two educators at the school were even highlighted on The Today Show with Craig Melvin after NBC saw the stories told in the docuseries. 

RELATED: Inside Woodlawn: No Time to Waste

Now, KGW is checking back in on Woodlawn staff and students, as they're back to full in-person learning five days a week. They said they're glad to be back inside the building, even with all the changes like lunch outside in small pods, wearing masks all day and having to social distance.

“I don’t like the mask thing but at least we’re at school,” said fourth grader Patrick.

Principal Andrea Porter Lopez said keeping COVID out of Woodlawn keeps her up at night.

“We're making it work, but are we doing enough to make it work? Are we doing enough to make sure kids are distanced enough, that they're safe in their classroom, that our systems are working,” said Porter Lopez.

Teachers said they’ve noticed a loss of basic skills with kids having to be remote for more than a year.

“I do worry about some children that have fallen behind. I know that we have a lot of work to do, we all at Woodlawn know that there's a lot of work to be done,” said kindergarten aide Luretta Tinnon.

RELATED: Inside Woodlawn: The struggles and successes of distance learning

First grade teacher, Lionel Clegg, said he feels more like a kindergarten teacher this year.

“Just learning how to hold a pencil is something that I'm spending a little more time than I would typically as a first-grade teacher,” said Clegg.

Teachers are confident they’ll get kids back on track. They started working with each other last year on prioritizing the most important things kids need to learn before moving on to the next grade.

“I think us working together as a staff is going to help them eventually close that gap again,” said Clegg.

Their biggest goal for the 2021/2022 school year is to actually stay in the classroom.

“Hope number one is that we get to stay in school really, and that everybody is safe,” said Porter Lopez.

About Inside Woodlawn:

KGW investigative reporter Cristin Severance and photojournalists Gene Cotton and Kurt Austin were granted remarkable access to spend the 2019-2020 school year chronicling life inside Woodlawn Elementary School in Northeast Portland. Their reporting offers a rich view of how teachers, administrators, school staff and parents overcome many challenges to serve students. KGW will continue to tell their stories in 2021 and beyond as the staff deals with the pandemic, distance learning and providing support to families during this unprecedented time. 

Please follow our series on YouTube, Facebook and by using #insidewoodlawn on Twitter and Instagram.