Mountain School, a beloved program for area fifth-graders, has been limited by the COVID-19 pandemic to activities that can be done online and in backyards.

The North Cascades Institute launched the program with a tent camping expedition in the nearby mountains in 1990, and in the 30 years since it has grown into a three-day experience with summer camp-like lodging, hikes in the woods and activities at the institute’s Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake.

Hundreds of Skagit County students lost the opportunity to participate this spring because of the global pandemic.

“It makes us really sad,” said Saul Weisberg, who founded the nonprofit institute in 1986.

“Our core mission is to inspire environmental stewardship through these transformational experiences in nature,” he said. “So Mountain School and high school programs in the summer and family programs are all about bringing groups together in the North Cascades to learn together.”

The pandemic brought an abrupt end to Mountain School and the institute’s Snow School in March, and the cancellation of other institute programs through at least June, School Programs Manager Codi Hamblin said. Just a few lucky schools, including Centennial Elementary, were able to attend Mountain School during the first two weeks of March.

“There was an extraordinary amount of excitement coming into 2020 ... It’s the 30th anniversary of our longest running program, we’re all so pumped and then boom — middle of March everything changed,” North Cascades Institute Marketing and Communications Director Christian Martin said.

Fifth-grade teachers from the Mount Vernon, Sedro-Woolley and Concrete school districts said there was excitement among students and faculty as well, and ample disappointment when Mountain School was halted.

“It really is an invaluable program for the fifth-graders because it ties together all the work we do all year in science and gives them that spark of joy from getting outdoors and exploring how lucky we are to live where we live,” Little Mountain Elementary teacher Juniper Carpenter said.

The spring session of the program usually hosts about 1,500 students from Skagit and Whatcom counties from March to June. This year nine local schools signed up to attend.

When schools were closed because of COVID-19, teachers were asked by their 10- and 11-year-old students whether Mountain School would go on.

“We always go in the spring, kind of as a culminating event and it’s something they really, really look forward to,” Lyman Elementary teacher Brett Skiles said.

Mountain School activities include real-life lessons about nature. Several teachers said those lessons come when students see remaining snow, talk about glaciers and walk Diablo Dam.

“A lot of the kids freak out because they don’t realize that’s the same water that comes down into Mount Vernon,” Carpenter said of the Diablo Lake reservoir on the upper Skagit River. “They’re like, ‘What? That’s the Skagit River?’”

Making those connections reinforces what the students are learning in their science classes.

“The science standards that they have to learn for fifth grade has a lot to do with the environment on the Earth and the human impact and the watershed. What better way to learn about the watershed than to be out in it?” Linda Kilpatrick of Concrete Elementary said.

Hamblin said that’s not going to happen this spring for 1,190 students in Skagit and Whatcom counties who signed up to attend.

While the institute has faced lockdowns at its Environmental Learning Center due to avalanches, and evacuations due to wildfires, COVID-19 presents a longer-term threat.

“When we had the fires in 2015 the learning center was closed. It was so smoky there ... Then the rains came and Mountain School opened. This is not: The rains are going to come and it’s going to change,” Weisberg said.

For now, the institute is offering its “Mountain School at Home” curriculum on its website. It includes downloadable activity sheets and video lessons.

“I’m extremely excited about and proud of ‘Mountain School at Home’ because there were no plans for that in February or March,” Martin said. “We’ve always wondered what it would be like to reach people online and it (the pandemic) kind of forced our hand.”

Some teachers have passed the lessons on to their students as optional classwork.

“A number of them expressed they were pretty excited to be able to use those at-home lessons,” Skiles said.

Lessons include fun facts about local wildlife, observing backyard nature, nature journaling, and identifying flowers and trees — including by using a new take on a popular Adele song.

“Ideally we’d be out with kids in the forest and the mountains getting to do hands-on learning directly with the students, but this is the next best thing we can offer,” Hamblin said.

For the curriculum:

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199,, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH,

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