Back to nature

Like so many other schools on the island, the Whidbey Island Waldorf School has had to make adjustments to its upcoming school year as a result of COVID-19.

The Clinton school will be suspending all of its programming for grades 1-8 for the year. Instead, the focus will be placed on early childhood education.

“That was a really hard and painful decision to make,” said Karina Bergen, the school’s enrollment and outreach director.

Bergen added that the older grades were cut in order to avoid “record deficit” and to ensure “long-term health of the school.”

The focus has shifted to the preschool and kindergarten programs, which will operate in the natural environment of the 100 acres the school occupies.

The kindergarten program, called the Great Forest, will consist of two separate classes that will spend the day fully outdoors and immersed in nature, which has always been one of the school’s greatest assets according to faculty.

The Little Woods program, for children, ages 1 to 3, will spend about half of the time outdoors and half indoors.

The Great Forest children will be expected to mask up. Because of their young age range, the Little Woods kids will not be required to wear masks.

Despite the hardships created by the pandemic, Bergen said she has seen an “exodus from the mainland” in the form of new families moving to Whidbey recently. The early childhood programs have had a booming enrollment so far and are almost all full.

“You can social distance pretty easily on South Whidbey,” Bergen said, a fact that some families fleeing the city are discovering.

For kindergarten teacher William Dolde, whose class has always taken place mostly outdoors, the school year will be nothing out of the ordinary.

“A lot is going to be very much the same,” he said.

For his fellow kindergarten teacher Vanessa Rochon-Tierney, things will be a bit different. Her classes are accustomed to spending about half of the time indoors and half outdoors, but being outside full-time is a challenge she’s willing to embrace.

“I’m gearing up to spend five days a week out in the forest with a group of 15 children,” she said with a laugh.

“We are so fortunate to be on that 100 acres. I can’t imagine a better place in this world to be,” she added.

Bergen said some of the other teachers for the older grades have been working with groups of kids independently from the Waldorf school to help them with homeschooling.

The goal for the Waldorf School is to restore the older grades after the 2020-21 school year.

Bergen said she has seen a national trend of groups of kids from different families being instructed by one teacher.

“People are going back to early 19th century teaching methods where you have these small groups of children learning together,” Bergen said.

Melisa Hall has been doing just that.

Originally hired by the Whidbey Island Waldorf School to instruct fourth and fifth graders, Hall said the school year is shaping up to be different than what she expected.

A newcomer to the island, Hall has been eagerly planning for the school year.

Hall will be teaching the Waldorf curriculum to a group of seven kids from the fourth and fifth grade, fully outdoors.

“I’m pretty excited to bring some skills that I have and use nature as a classroom,” Hall said.

She has taught kindergarten classes in Minnesota and Kansas and is accustomed to a range of weather.

“There’s no bad weather,” Hall said. “There’s just inappropriate gear.”

She sees the outdoor school year as an opportunity to connect back to nature, rather than staying at home during these difficult times.

Some people have asked Hall why she still decided to move to Whidbey with the changes at the Waldorf school.

“This is the work that I want to do in the world, and I think the world needs it more than ever this year,” Hall said.

Photo by Carol Johnsen
                                Teacher William Dolde with his kindergarten class on the playground swing in 2018. Outdoor playtime is a celebrated activity at the Waldorf school.

Photo by Carol Johnsen Teacher William Dolde with his kindergarten class on the playground swing in 2018. Outdoor playtime is a celebrated activity at the Waldorf school.

Photo provided
                                Whidbey Island Waldorf School teacher William Dolde leads his kindergarten class on a trip into the woods in 2016. Dolde said he is used to teaching his classes outdoors, immersed in nature. It’s a model the Waldorf School is adopting for all of its kindergarten classes this year.

Photo provided Whidbey Island Waldorf School teacher William Dolde leads his kindergarten class on a trip into the woods in 2016. Dolde said he is used to teaching his classes outdoors, immersed in nature. It’s a model the Waldorf School is adopting for all of its kindergarten classes this year.

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