Gabriela Rendon and sister Vanessa head in to Houck Middle School for the first day of in-person sixth grade on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

As the first four Houck Middle School students walked in the front door Tuesday morning, a half-dozen teachers and administrators erupted in cheers.

“Welcome back!” many shouted, applauding as the sixth graders, who appeared to still be waking up, shuffled toward the cafeteria to grab their schedules.

Similar scenes played out across Salem and Keizer as local schools welcomed sixth and ninth graders back in-person, giving the youngest students at schools a chance to learn the building layouts and adjust before being joined by older classmates.

At McKay, the school’s marching band greeted freshmen, playing “Crazy in Love” as students filed in.

Whiteaker Middle School and North Salem High School rolled out literal red carpets leading to the school doors. South Salem High School opted for a balloon arch.

For some of those returning, it was all a little much.

“When I walked in the door, they were like, ‘AHHHHHHH!’ and I was like, ‘Stop! Stop giving me attention!’” said Ashtyn Carrier, 12, a sixth-grader at Houck.

As she waited for her first period English class to start, Carrier said she was glad to be back, despite the sensory overload of the welcome. She was most excited to learn what the mystery “exploratory music” class on her schedule was, she said.

Across the district, about 2,500 high school and 1,150 middle school students were back for in-person classes Tuesday, starting the fourth quarter of the school year.

A second group of freshmen and sixth graders will return Wednesday, followed by older classmates on Thursday and Friday.

McKay senior Alexia Rodriguez Tolento plays flute along with the rest of the marching band to welcome freshmen to their first day of in-person school on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

For the rest of the year, students will attend school two days per week in-person and remain in online classes the rest of the time. In the fall, the district plans to resume five days per week of full-time, in-person classes.

Houck offered sixth-graders tours of the building, led by seventh and eighth grade teachers who pointed out bathrooms, the library and the upstairs wing where most of the group’s classes would be held.

“They’ve spent most of the year as a Houck student and have never been to the building,” said assistant principal Brian Storrs.

Students won’t get the full school lunch experience yet because meals have to be eaten in classrooms to minimize the amount of contact between students.

But principal Julia DeWitt said Houck would continue a series of themed virtual lunch gatherings that began during all-online school. That way, students can see friends in other classes while talking about Pokemon or playing Minecraft. (Teachers aspiring to supervise the Minecraft group were warned that they needed prior experience to ensure they could keep up with the students.)

As classes started, teachers teased their students and tried to draw them out of their shells.

“You’re all quiet just like a Zoom class!” said Gerald Hosler, McKay’s agriculture teacher.

Freshman Cony Garibay, 15, sat with two friends in the back of an art class. She was “really nervous” about the first day, she said, mostly about getting lost and meeting classmates.

“This is a lot of people too,” she said.

Garibay had saved her digital class schedule as the lockscreen on her phone so she wouldn’t have to unlock the device to figure out where her next class was. She said she was glad the school opted to give freshmen a day to adjust on their own, and despite her nerves was “happy because I don’t really like online.”

Teachers and school administrators stood in hallways wearing blue school shirts with buttons reading “Ask Me!” and pointed freshmen to their classes. A similar welcome process will play out for the rest of the week as more students come back each day.

Principal Rob Schoepper was enthusiastic as first period began, thanking a group of staff in the hall.

“Let’s rinse and repeat for the next three days!” he said.

Correction: This article originally misspelled Ashtyn Carrier's first name. Salem Reporter regrets the error.

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

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