A bulletin board promoting masks and social distancing guidelines at Hallman Elementary on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

There is no more rug in Crystal Magee’s classroom.

Stuffed animals are gone too, and bins of school supplies have been replaced with individual boxes, one labeled for each student in her kindergarten and first grade class at Richmond Elementary.

“Typically at this age, we’d be doing a lot of sharing,” Magee said. Now, every surface in the classroom is designed to be easily sanitized, and materials can’t be passed between students.

Magee is one of hundreds of elementary school teachers in the Salem-Keizer School District preparing to reopen her classroom to students in-person.

Kindergarten and first graders, about 4,400 students across the district, will start hybrid classes on March 2, spending five hours per day, two days per week at school. Second and third graders return March 9, and fourth and fifth graders March 16.

About half of Salem-Keizer’s elementary schools will hold classes from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., and the other half from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Schedules for each elementary school are posted on the district website.

The return to in-person classes for Oregon’s second-largest school district is a significant milestone for Gov. Kate Brown, who made the controversial decision to prioritize teachers for Covid vaccines ahead of elderly Oregonians in a bid to get more students back in classrooms.

Despite that push, most districts in the Portland metro area don’t plan to offer in-person classes for students until April, the Oregonian reported.

Brown earlier this week visited Kalapuya Elementary School in west Salem and praised the school’s safety preparations to prevent the spread of Covid.

Across the district, classes are split in half to allow more space between students in classrooms. Elementary students will spend three days per week at home, working on assignments from their teacher and having live music and gym classes.

The shorter school day allows the district’s elementary schools to be split for bus routes, because health guidelines require fewer students on buses. It also gives teachers like Magee time after class to sanitize the classroom.

Magee said she’s both eager and nervous for the switch and said teachers have been working hard to prepare. On Zoom, she’s walked her camera around the classroom so her kids know what to expect, and taken them out in the hallway to show them the red stickers on the floor marking off six feet of distance.

“It made them excited,” she said.

Crystal Magee, a kindergarten and first grade teacher at Richmond Elementary in Salem, shows the individual cubbies she's made for student school supplies in her classroom on Feb. 25, 2021. Students will return in-person to her class on March 2. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Some of her students have been calling into class every day from their bedroom closets or dining room tables and are looking forward to having a space to learn that’s free from distraction, she said. Many had questions about whether they’d get to have recess (yes) or how lining up would work.

Magee said she’s most looking forward to seeing her students’ faces, even behind a mask. It will be easier for her to tailor her teaching to student needs once she sees how students perform without parents helping them at home.

“It’s going to be nice to get them in front of you and know how much they know,” she said.

Her classroom floor is a maze of tape - orange arrows guiding students to their desks on a one-way path; green marking a rectangle for each desk to sit in, with an aisle between the rows for her to walk down as she teaches. But it still contains many hallmarks of a regular elementary school classroom, with colorful bulletin boards.

Magee also made tubs with toys for students to play with during rainy day recess, stocking them with dollar store finds like Play-Doh so kids don’t get bored if they have to stay inside.

School principals have spent the past weeks double and triple checking health protocols and fielding questions from parents, some of whom are unsure about sending students back.

The first days of school will be largely consumed with teaching kids new routines, particularly kindergarteners who have never set foot inside a school before.

“It’s like starting a new job,” said Jessica Brenden, principal at Hallman Elementary.

Brenden said she’s talked to 12 families this week who initially didn’t want to send their students back in-person, out of about 350 students enrolled at the school. Several were sure of their decision, even though it meant switching to another teacher, but she said eight decided to remain at Hallman after Brenden talked to them about the safety protocols in place.

Brenden said she and her staff are “really excited, really just eager to be doing school closer to the way we have been trained and know how to do school,” she said.

She’s been filming a series of short videos answering common parent questions about what school will look like, from bus rides (masks required) to school lunch (one class at a time will pick up food in the cafeteria, then return to the classroom to eat).

Bonney Dietrich, principal at Richmond Elementary, said her employees have called each family individually about the return to school to answer any questions they might have. Fewer than 10 of the school’s 240 students have decided to remain online, she said. Many are eager to have a break from helping their kids with school at home.

“Most of our families here are grateful,” she said.

Jodi Peterson, the district’s head nurse, said she’s confident about the safety precautions in place, which have been refined over months of holding smaller in-person classes for struggling students and those who need extra help.

While March will be the first large-scale return of students to buildings, local schools haven’t been sitting empty.

Last week, 3,050 Salem-Keizer students were inside schools for brief in-person classes, according to data from the Oregon Department of Education.

Local schools have recorded some Covid cases among both students and employees, according to data from Oregon Health Authority.

The agency’s weekly reports include any Covid cases reported among people attending or working at a school in-person, but don’t indicate whether the person contracted the virus at school or whether it spread among students or employees at school. The health authority’s Feb. 18 report listed recent Covid cases at 10 district schools, with a total of eight students and 10 district employees or school volunteers known to have the virus.

Peterson said the district and health department haven’t found any instances where Covid spread between staff and students, and district administrators have previously said cases of multiple students getting sick often occur when students are spending time together outside school at social events.

If a student or employee at a school tests positive for Covid, all parents will be notified, district spokesman Aaron Harada said, even if their child wasn’t in contact with that person.

The district’s Covid team will work with the local health department to identify who that person was in close contact with and determine who needs to quarantine, Peterson said. That won’t necessarily include everyone in the same class or bus route, she said, since students will be wearing masks and physically distant.

Classes at Richmond typically begin at 9 a.m., but under the split schedule, they’ll be starting at 8, with students arriving by 7:45 a.m. so they have time for breakfast.

Dietrich said she expects the first day will be a bit like the return after Daylight Saving Time, when some students and families are an hour off the school schedule.

She’s been telling families, “Make sure to adjust your bedtime routine!”

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.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE

Elementary school will be five hours per day, two days per week under Salem-Keizer reopening plan

Kindergarten, first graders heading back to Salem-Keizer schools March 2

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