Teacher Crystal Magee wipes down Giovanni Farjado Perez’s desk at Richmond Elementary on the first day back at school on Tuesday, March 2. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

As parents dropped their students at the front door of Richmond Elementary School, a bus pulled up to the side of the school.

Kindergartener Lucas Gage disembarked, looking uncertain and not recognizing the faces of the school’s welcoming committee.

“Lucas, it’s Ms. Angel!” special education assistant Angel Kautz called out. Gage sprinted toward her, going for a hug. She stepped back, instead offering her fist for a fist bump, which Gage did enthusiastically, then showed him to a line in front of school to get checked in.

“That was hard, that was really hard,” Kautz said of dodging Gage’s hug. It’s one of the adjustments teachers and educators have had to make as they welcome the first students in the Salem-Keizer School District back for regular in-person classes this week under strict Covid health protocols.

“I’m very excited that they’re all back,” said Kautz, who wore bright yellow leggings depicting gnome bees, a high-energy elementary school fashion statement that matched the bright colors on many student’s backpacks and masks. As families arrived, she and other educators greeted them with smiles wide enough to be seen under their masks.

“Welcome! We’re so glad to see you!” teachers called out.

Classes are split in half to accommodate more space between desks, and white lines taped outside the school kept students and parents spaced out as they waited to sign in. On Wednesday, schools will repeat the process with a fresh set of students while Tuesday’s classes resume school at home.

About 50 Richmond students were expected in three kindergarten and first grade classrooms Tuesday, principal Bonney Dietrich said. Second and third graders across the district will return March 9, and fourth and fifth graders March 16.

Shawntay Benjamin drops off daughter Nayvah Creer for the first day of in-person kindergarten at Richmond Elementary on Tuesday, March 2. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

In Crystal Magee’s classroom, students ate a breakfast of applesauce, a breakfast cookie and milk, then got to work coloring name tags for their desks.

“Teacher, is it okay if I dump all my crayons?” one girl called from the back of the room.

“I would dump them in your pencil box,” Magee responded.

Magee has taught a first grade class all year. She had six kindergarten students reassigned to her this week because her classroom is one of the largest at Richmond and can accommodate more students.

“I just met you on Zoom Monday and now here you are!” Magee exclaimed as her new students arrived.

She escorted two of the new arrivals, a pair of twins, to their desks following an orange tape line on the floor.

School was supposed to begin at 8 a.m., but families began arriving at 7:30, with late arrivals still trickling in close to 9 a.m. Several parents mistakenly dropped off older students and had to come retrieve them.

Miranda Butler watched as her son, Lane, a kindergarten student, walked into his classroom. Parents weren’t able to go into the school because of Covid protocols, so she watched from outside.

“That was his first question: ‘Can you walk in with me?’” she said.

Butler said her son has done well with online classes, but both were eager to return in-person. They laid out his clothes and got his backpack ready the night before.

“He had to get up really early,” she said. “He was excited. He probably would have done it on his own.”

Jessica Cronin waited in line to drop off her daughter, Tova. Cronin said the family has been “unschooling” at home, focusing on reading and letting Tova explore her interests. They began online classes a few weeks ago and were also eager to return in person.

“I’m happy about it,” Cronin said. “She needs that connection.”

Guillermina Romo, a bilingual Richmond teacher, was part of the welcoming committee escorting students into the building and helping some who didn’t bring a mask from home put on a school-provided covering.

“I’m so excited. I’ve been working in the building since they let us come in,” she said.

Richmond teachers and administrators called every family ahead of the in-person return to talk to parents. Romo reached out to most of the school’s Spanish-speaking families and said parents were nearly all eager to bring their kids back. Some started off excited, while others warmed to the idea after she answered questions about safety protocols.

“We talked with them before, but they put a lot of trust in us,” she said.


Teachers prepare to welcome Salem's youngest students back to classrooms

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

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

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