Miranda Lara Ruiz, 16, left, and Marina Melnychuk pick up items from their lockers at McKay High School on Thursday, September 3. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Class schedules and face masks aren’t the top worry for freshmen in Stefani Atkinson’s English class.

As her students get ready for their first day of in-person class at Sprague High School next week, she said they’re thinking about something much more basic.

“The number one concern is getting lost in the building,” she said.

Thousands of middle and high school students across Salem will be back in school buildings two days per week starting April 13.

For almost 3,000 ninth graders across the Salem-Keizer School District, it will be their first time inside the school they’ve technically been attending for almost a year through online classes.

Local high schools are getting creative with their first day plans, with many offering tours for students ahead of the start of in-person classes.

Atkinson said one of her challenges will be recognizing the students she’s spent months teaching. High school students rarely turn their cameras on for Zoom classes, so her only visual aid for some of her pupils is a middle school yearbook photo that’s over a year old.

“The connection aspect has been very difficult for teachers and students,” she said.

At McKay High School, principal Rob Schoepper’s office is covered in butcher paper checklists taped on the wall and white boards with tasks to be completed.

Schoepper and assistant principal Ricardo Larios both came to McKay from district middle schools.

They’re tapping that experience to plan a welcome celebration for students, which will include a band playing outside the school’s front entrance, balloons and special T-shirts for school staff. Larios said they wanted to go all out, even if the prevailing attitude of high school students is sometimes “too cool for school.”

“We’re going back to just that awkward school spirit,” Schoepper said. “This is a celebration. This is a big deal.”

Salem-Keizer schools began bringing elementary students back for regular in-person classes March 2, starting with kindergarten and first graders.

By the end of the month, all elementary students whose families wanted in-person class were attending two days per week.

About 80% of district elementary students opted to return.

Middle and high school students will return in-person between April 13 and 16 for the final quarter of the school year.

High school students will attend in-person classes two days a week, either Tuesday and Thursday or Wednesday and Friday. At most schools the day will run from 9:35 a.m. to 2:35 p.m. On days without school, students will work on assignments at home.

The schedule was designed to reduce the number of students inside schools at any one time and allow for more space between students.

District leaders began planning for the return when state rules required six feet of distance between students, though that’s since been loosened to three feet. School plans are still built around the six-foot requirement, with desks marked off in classrooms.

At Sprague, principal Chad Barkes said school administrators have worked with student government and leadership students to plan welcome activities for ninth and tenth graders on their first day back. If weather cooperates, he’s planning an outdoor school assembly to welcome Sprague’s newest students to the school.

Barkes said plans for classes like music and theater are constantly in flux because state rules have shifted multiple times during the planning process, but most performing arts will be able to hold something resembling normal classes.

Students won’t have access to locker rooms to change clothes, so gym classes have to use activities that get students moving without breaking a sweat.

Lunch, typically a time for teens to socialize with friends in other classes, will instead be eaten in students’ third period classrooms.

Even with the changes, Barkes said he’s glad to see a return for both students and teachers.

“I’m excited for the kids. The school experience is about being together,” Barkes said.

Over the past week, school principals have held online question and answer nights for families, addressing what school supplies are needed and what else students should do to prepare.

Schoepper and Barkes said a small number of families have opted to stay online full-time, but most just have questions about safety protocols, which include requiring masks for students except when they’re eating.

Educators know many students face academic challenges upon returning, and high schools are preparing for significantly expanded summer programs for students who have fallen behind over the past year.

“Most of our teachers feel like there’s major gaps,” Barkes said.

That’s particularly true in subjects like math, he said, where students who struggle in algebra are unlikely to do well in geometry the following year.

District high schools have seen higher than normal rates of failing grades this year. McKay typically runs a large summer program targeted at seniors who lack credits required to graduate but expects substantially more participants this year.

“We are not thinking in terms of ending a school year in June,” Schoepper said.

Correction: This article originally misspelled teacher Stefani Atkinson's first name. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.

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

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