This spring, about 150 Skagit County students were expected to descend onto the mudflats of Padilla Bay to help document the presence of the spiral-shelled snail that dots the beach at low tide through the Kids on the Beach Program.

With students sent home in March for their safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic, that didn’t happen.

“I was really looking forward to having my students have the experience of collecting field data, learning and working with scientists ... on the beach,” said Concrete science teacher Sacha Buller, whose class planned to participate for the first time. “I have students who are fascinated with marine biology from watching nature documentaries on Netflix, but have only been to the beach a few times in their lives.”

While the pandemic took beach trips off the table, about 300 students from the region are studying the nonnative snail using new remote-friendly curriculum developed by the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve’s education specialist Annie England.

Students from Everett, Friday Harbor and Mukilteo are now participating, though England said the majority — about 230 — are fifth through eighth graders from Concrete, La Conner and Sedro-Woolley.

Buller said she was excited to offer a science-focused field trip this spring to help keep students in her seventh and eighth grade class focused on their studies. Using Google Classroom to connect her students with the Kids on the Beach program content has been a welcome backup plan.

“It is very hard to get our students engaged, especially as we near the end of the school year,” Buller said. “I’ve been lucky in having fantastic environmental educators supporting my distance learning in my environmental science class.”

England, with the help of lead batillaria researcher Roger Fuller and others at the reserve, developed digital and print versions of the Kids on the Beach curriculum for at-home study, to ensure students without internet capability could still participate.

That curriculum had to come together fast after schools — and Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve facilities — closed in mid-March, not long before field trips were set to begin in April.

“There’s no way we’re going to be able to bring kids onto the beach in person. We’re going to adjust and adapt,” reserve Research Coordinator Jude Apple said during an April 9 Skagit Marine Resources Committee meeting, when the team was grappling with how to keep the program alive.

A month later, the program was nearly ready for student use.

“That’s really great to see how you have pivoted ... well done,” Northwest Straits Commission Marine Program Manager Dana Oster said after a presentation by England during a May 7 Skagit Marine Resources Committee meeting.

The curriculum explains the Padilla Bay food web and how the nonnative mudsnails fit into it.

It also relates the science to the students’ lives. Fun fact: The millions of mudsnails living in the bay could fill 340 school buses, according to the curriculum.

The Kids on the Beach program is sponsored by the Skagit Marine Resources Committee, Northwest Straits Commission and Shell Puget Sound Refinery. The program has been growing and transforming since its start, as a study of forage fish on a Fidalgo Bay beach, during the 2017-2018 school year.

This is the first year the program was hosted by the Padilla Bay reserve with a focus on the nonnative snail species.

Students and volunteers look forward to the field excursions, usually the focus of the program.

“It has been a challenge due to COVID-19. A lot of the intentions, a lot of time planning for volunteers of course has had to shift,” said Pete Haase, Skagit Marine Resources Committee volunteer and founder of the Kids on the Beach Program. “We have a lot of disappointed volunteers, but schools are thankful for the opportunity.”

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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