James Gough, an incoming kindergartner at Kalapuya Elementary School, laughs after making a mistake on an assessment test to gauge his alphabet comprehension on Thursday, September 17. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

About 4,400 of Salem’s youngest students will be back in school buildings part-time starting March 2 under a plan district leaders released Thursday.

Kindergarten and first grade students will start in-person classes the first week of March, coming into school two days per week and continuing online classes on other days.

The split is necessary to follow state health guidelines, which require physical distance between students in classrooms and for classrooms to have at least 35 square feet of space per person.

Students will be assigned to a group that has in-person classes either on Tuesdays and Thursday or Wednesdays and Fridays, Salem-Keizer Superintendent Christy Perry said in an informational video released Thursday. Students and employees will also be required to wear masks.

“I hope you are as excited as we are to come back to the classroom in person,” Perry said.

Elementary school students in most district special education programs, which combine students in multiple grades, will also be able to resume in-person school March 2 under the plan. Second and third grade would resume in-person classes March 9, and fourth and fifth graders March 16.

Middle and high school students won’t have regular in-person classes until April at the earliest. District leaders have said they instead plan to expand limited in-person classes for older students. Those classes give one-on-one or small group help to students struggling online.

That timeline puts Salem-Keizer ahead of most large Oregon school districts’ target dates to resume widespread in-person classes.

Of the state’s 10 largest districts, only Bend-La Pine is currently holding in-person classes for elementary school students. The Medford School District plans to begin such classes Feb. 22, according to the district website.

District administrators reached an agreement with Salem-Keizer's teacher union in mid-January covering a return to in-person school, which said the district must give teachers 10 days notice before resuming regular in-person classes and allow teachers one preparation day to transition. Specific details about teacher work schedules are still being negotiated.

Many details of the return to school, including bus routes and schedules for in-person classes, remain to be announced. Perry said school principals will share specifics with families.

“We’re going to go slow and we’re going to take really good care of kids,” said Jessica Brenden, principal of Hallman Elementary School.

Brenden said the mood as families prepare to head back has included excitement and fear among both employees and parents. She hopes in the coming weeks to convince families the return will be safe and urge them to give in-person classes a try.

The school will also be working out the logistics of classes like gym and music. She said early days back at school will also include time for students and teachers to catch up with each other and “build community,” acknowledging that hundreds of kids have been without in-person classes for nearly a year.

“We have to take time to do that because we need it as human beings. And if we do that well, then the literacy happens more easily. The math happens more easily,” Brenden said.

Students can’t be required to attend school in-person under state rules. The district has been operating an all-online program called EDGE since September, but spokeswoman Sylvia McDaniel said they’re now working on plans for families who opted not to enroll in EDGE but don’t feel comfortable coming back in person yet.

Some local parents and teachers have pushed for schools to reopen since early fall, citing the social and academic challenges of online school. Others are wary of returning when Covid cases remain prevalent in the community.

As of Jan. 1, Oregon schools can decide to reopen regardless of local Covid case rates. State health and education officials on Jan. 19 revised their recommendations for resuming in-person school, saying elementary school could resume at higher rates of Covid spread - up to 350 new cases per 100,000 county residents over a two-week period.

Covid case rates have fallen in 2021 in both Marion and Polk counties. As a result of that decrease and the state change, both counties are under the state-recommended threshold for in-person elementary school classes as of Jan. 30.

Brittanie Rupea said her daughter Harper, who’s in first grade, thrived at Grant Elementary School before classes moved online.

“During online school, I’m afraid she’s not at the level she once was. It’s been a struggle to keep her engaged on the computer the school has provided plus both parents working full time, though I can see that the teachers are trying their best,” Rupea said in an email.

She said the family is both nervous and excited about sending her back. They worry about other students and adults following safety protocols, and what might happen if there’s a Covid outbreak at school, she said.

Casey Kopcho said his family has similar fears about returning their first-grader, Sam, to classes at Lee Elementary. As he’s helped his son with online classes, he said he’s heard other families talk about traveling, attending birthday parties or otherwise spending more time with those outside their own household than his family is comfortable with.

“It’s like driving on a road late at night. I trust my ability to drive, but I don’t necessarily trust a bunch of drunk people’s ability to drive,” he said.

Kopcho said he recognizes online school is easier for his son because he and his wife both work from home and can help with classes. He worries about other students who aren’t so fortunate, like one girl in his son’s class who he said is absent nearly every day.

“Some kids need to have learning in person or they’re not going to get it. That is a consideration. That needs to be addressed. I don’t know how you do that without everyone going back,” he said.

But he added, “I can’t envision a scenario where they put all these kids back in school and somebody doesn’t get sick. It’s complicated. I don’t know. I hate it.”

Annalivia Palazzo-Angulo, executive director of the Latino parent advocacy group Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality, said online learning has gone better than she expected for many of the families enrolled in the organization’s classes, particularly when students have strong bilingual teachers. Kindergarten and first grade students have often done better than she expected.

But she said she’s concerned about the students falling behind.

“That’s hundreds of thousands of kids whose lives are being permanently impacted and that’s our future,” she said.

While much attention has been paid to the youngest students, who are still learning to read, and high schoolers failing classes, Palazzo-Angulo said she worried about older elementary and middle school students who are often ignored in discussions about online school.

“If they don’t do well in those particular years it tends to be really hard for them to get back engaged and be really successful,” she said.

She said many of the roughly 100 parents now participating in groups and classes through the Coalition fear sending their students back to school because of Covid, but she expects that will change as reopening begins.

“I do think they’ll probably fall in line when they see the others doing it,” she said. “I’m really happy that the district is being open to multiple different things.”

Are you an elementary school parent or educator in Salem-Keizer? We want to hear your thoughts about returning to in-person classes. Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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