Fourth grade students work on an assignment in Stephanie Madison's classroom on the first day back to in-person class for fourth and fifth grade students at Myers Elementary School on Wednesday, March 17, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Stephanie Madison, a fourth-grade teacher at Myers Elementary School in west Salem, wanted her students to have the “best first day of school ever.”

So she brought some eggs and an incubator to class.

“The black one just hatched!” she announced as a dozen students settled into her portable classroom.

On Wednesday, March 17, Madison and her students were back at school in-person for the first time in a year. Fourth and fifth grade students across the Salem-Keizer School District resumed in-person classes this week, joining their younger classmates who returned earlier this month. Madison had a special lesson planned for later in the day: letting her students hold the newly hatched poultry. 

Two chicks who had emerged from their shells earlier in the morning peeped as students recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

PHOTOS: Fourth and fifth graders join younger classmates in Salem-Keizer schools

Fourth grade teacher Stephanie Madison checks up on recently hatched chicks at Myers Elementary School on Wednesday, March 17, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

The incubator was on loan from Oregon Agriculture in the Classroom, a foundation that provides agriculture-themed lessons and supplies for teachers. Madison said she planned to incorporate her classroom’s newest citizens into science lessons throughout the week.

Local elementary schools are now as full as they’re allowed to be under state health rules, with about 14,000 students across the district attending two days per week. Kindergarten and first graders went back March 2, and second and third graders on March 9.

Middle and high school students will resume in-person classes in April, though older students in some district programs are already back in classrooms part time.

At Myers, a steady stream of families walked to the school’s entrance or pulled up in the parking lot to unload. Some had younger students running eagerly toward the building as older kids who hadn’t yet been back hesitated, unsure where to go.

“We’re so happy,” said Kristin Tomlin as she and her husband dropped their son Brady off for his first day back in fifth grade. Online school has been “horrible” for the family, she said.

Madison’s students reported a mix of emotions during a morning check-in at the start of the day.

“I am feeling nervous and happy. Nervous to be in school and happy to see you,” Carson Reyes told his classmates.

He said attending school during a pandemic and only having met his classmates on Zoom contributed to his nervousness.

Reyes’ classmate agreed.

“It was a little hard to come back and not know anybody,” said Helen Glaser.

Madison said she’s spent the past weeks preparing students for the return to in-person classes and was excited to be back.

“We’ve done a lot of prep to be ready for this,” she said.

Inside Rachel Robertson’s classroom, second-grade students took their seats and began coloring a leprechaun picture.

Robertson’s class is split between first and second grade, with the older students attending in-person Wednesdays and Fridays. Many are in her class for a second year, so she said the transition back to in-person over the past two weeks went smoothly.

“I know them well,” she said. “It didn’t take us very long to get back into things,” she said.

With students coming back into classrooms in smaller groups, local educators have had many “first days of school” this year.

But Myers rolled out a special welcoming committee Wednesday. 

Brenda Vollmar, a kindergarten classroom aide, was decked out in green with an antenna headband for St. Patrick’s Day. 

“Good to see you and not just on the computer, my friend!” she called as a student unloaded her backpack from a car.

“This is honestly one of my favorite parts of the day, rain or shine,” Vollmar said.

Behavior specialist Tyler Lewis transformed into the school’s cowboy mascot, with an inflatable horse costume around the lower half of his body and a cowboy hat. He’s worn the outfit previously but said he waited until Myers students from all grades were back in-person to roll it out this year.

“You gotta keep ‘em guessing,” he said of the students.

Teacher Tyler Lewis helps student Jonathan St. Onge-McDonald with his mask outside of Myers Elementary School on Wednesday, March 17, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

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

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