Highland Elementary School students enter the school library for brief in-person classes on Oct. 20, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

At 9:15 a.m. on a recent morning, Highland Elementary School principal Christi Cheever stood outside the school’s side entrance.

The school’s online morning classes had already begun, but Cheever was waiting on a half-dozen students who were supposed to come into the library for extra help.

Two had already arrived on a school bus just before 9 a.m., one boy without a backpack, jacket or mask.

Another walked up to the school by himself about 20 minutes late. Cheever smiled and led him up the stairs, where a classroom aide checked him in.

“We take them when they get here,” she said with a shrug.

Though all Salem-area schools are closed to regular classes until Marion County posts fewer new Covid cases, Highland is one of a handful now bringing students in for help in small groups.

Cheever said the goal is to help kids who are struggling to learn at home in front of a computer and who school employees couldn’t help through other means, like providing a Wi-Fi hotspot at home.

State rules allow any school to host kids in groups of 10 or fewer under strict health precautions, including requiring masks. (Highland provides them when kids inevitably show up maskless.)

Sessions are limited to two hours per day.

Highland started with a 9 to 11 a.m. session four days per week for eight students last week. This week, they added an afternoon session for kindergarteners.

So far, just seven other Salem-Keizer School District elementary schools have opted to do the same. Assistant superintendent Kraig Sproles said they wanted to start slowly and add schools each week, with a goal of all schools offering similar sessions by the end of November.

Highland Elementary School Principal Christi Cheever greets students coming in for brief in-person lessons on Oct. 20, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Cheever said Highland educators were eager to lead the way.

The school of about 300 students has one of the highest poverty rates in the district, with about 90% of students coming from low-income families. Four in 10 are not native English speakers, and Pacific Island languages Marshallese and Chuukese are now outpacing Spanish as first languages for the school’s kindergarten class, Cheever said.

Those factors mean the school’s students are especially likely to struggle with online class for a variety of reasons: crowded homes with little privacy, working parents who can’t help troubleshoot technology, language barriers with computer software, or disabilities that make it challenging for kids to stay on-task without adult help.

“We were kind of itching to get started,” Cheever said.

Teacher Mandy Pack works with kids in the library, helped by several classroom aides. Students sit at their own tables, spaced apart.

The team helps kids stay on track with online classes, guiding them when questions arise, but also works one-on-one in some areas where students struggle.

That can include special education services or brief sessions to help kids learning English.

“It’s harder to do language group online,” Pack said. A teacher can cover the same material from a 30 minute online session in about 15 minutes in person, she said, because about half the time is spent helping kids unfamiliar with both technology and English remember how to mute and unmute themselves or join a breakout room on Zoom.

“It’s just not as efficient,” she said.

The Highland Elementary School library is set up for small groups of students to get in-person help from a teacher on Oct. 20, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Pack is Highland’s instructional mentor, an experienced teacher who works to coach and help other teachers in the school. In a normal year, she’d be observing classrooms and working directly with other teachers, but with school online, she’s now working directly with kids.

She also helped review school data and talked to classroom teachers to decide which students most needed to come in-person.

“When you only get to choose 10 or fewer, you've got to make sure it’s the ones who need it the most,” she said.

School reopening has been a contentious issue across the U.S. and in Oregon for teacher unions, and the Salem-Keizer district is still bargaining with the Salem-Keizer Education Association over the many changes online schooling has brought to the profession.

Mindy Merritt, the union president, said they recognize the need for the sessions Highland is offering and praised the school administration’s approach to rolling out the program, which she said included teacher input and isn’t requiring employees already teaching online classes to put in extra hours helping kids in person.

Teachers are putting in longer days than ever adjusting to online classes, she said, often reporting 14 or 16 hour days as they take on new tasks like helping parents troubleshoot laptops.

Merritt said as more schools follow Highland’s lead, their chief concerns are about safety and workload.

“We recognize there are blueprints for safety, but as an association we want to make sure those safety protocols are in place and they’re being followed,” Merritt said.

Pack said she sees the risk of helping a few students in-person as similar to going to the grocery store. For her, it’s well worth the boost she gets from seeing kids learn - something many teachers report is harder to gauge online.

“There’s an energy that kids give you,” she said.

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Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.