Senior Saeeda Ibrahim talks to sophomore Victoria Lopez during orchestra class on the first day of school at North Salem High School on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Almost everyone inside North Salem High School looked lost Wednesday morning.

That’s typical for high school freshmen on the first day of classes, but with school largely online for the past 18 months, older students and some teachers were still getting the hang of the building’s layout following a renovation completed last fall.

“I sent two kids the wrong way!” said Cipriano Mañon-Muñoz, the school’s migrant education coordinator, laughing behind a black mask embroidered with sunflowers as he helped direct traffic between first and second period in the school’s main entryway.

Wednesday saw the return of around 40,000 students to full-time, in-person school in the Salem-Keizer School District for the first time since March 2020, when Gov. Kate Brown ordered schools across the state to close in response to the Covid pandemic.

Though local schools resumed in-person classes last spring, they were held only two days per week, with most schools at half capacity.

“This is my first day with the entire school here,” said Chad Towe, North’s principal, who came to the school in July 2020. “It’s incredibly exciting.”

The start of school Wednesday served as a reminder for many students, parents and educators about the traffic jams surrounding schools during drop-off times as buses and cars vied for a spot to let students out.

“The parking lot, it was completely full. I had to go park at someone’s house,” said North Salem senior Cynthia Morales.

Morales said she was eager to be back in person and looking forward to senior milestones like prom.

“It’s my senior year and I want to enjoy it,” she said.

Freshmen and sixth graders had an early start to the year Tuesday in an effort to help them adjust to their new schools and learn their way around.

At South Salem High School, Tuesday’s activities were directed by a group of 35 juniors and seniors selected as mentors through the school’s Link program. Each mentor is paired with a group of freshmen and will spend the year helping them get familiar with the school and learn study habits.

Mentors Emma Cordero, Madi Spier and Ashley Perkins, all seniors, said they’d planned icebreaker games. They were also offering building tours to their mentees to “make them less scared and anxious,” Spier said.

All three said they were excited to return and see the new wing of the school, constructed over the summer.

“It looks like a college,” Cordero said of the new classrooms. The newly constructed school auditorium now includes an orchestra pit for performances, and the wing has larger spaces for career programs including culinary arts and broadcast journalism.

About 10 minutes after classes were scheduled to begin at Liberty Elementary School in south Salem, administrators got on the school loudspeaker to ask teachers to wait to begin lessons because parents were still lined up in the parking lot.

First grade teacher Adelyn Rowland answers a question for Nicolas Moya Dammarell, left, as he and Anthony Ayala work on a worksheet on the first day of school at Liberty Elementary School on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Katie Webber reported her daughter Chloe, a third grader at Liberty, was “a little nervous” before starting her first day. The two hugged before Chloe entered the building.

The family had their daughter at Salem Academy before the pandemic but homeschooled her last year when classes were almost entirely online.

“She’ll have fun. She meets people so quickly,” Webber said.

Liberty has a new outdoor eating area outside its wing of fifth-grade classes, built by volunteers from nearby Trinity Lutheran Church. Principal Sophia Duerst said the church had approached her about ways to volunteer without entering the school buildings.

The area once covered with weeds now has four picnic tables so students can eat outdoors and planter boxes which will be used for agriculture projects.

In her first grade classroom, teacher Adelyn Rowland walked between tables, answering questions as students settled into their desks for the first time and began coloring a drawing of a monkey hanging in a tree.

Rowland is a first year teacher and said she was eager to get started with a class of “very fresh first graders” who have so far spent little time inside a school.

“This is all extra new to them compared to a normal first grade year,” Rowland said.

Third grade teacher Stephanie Lindsey said students and parents who attended the school’s Tuesday night open house were all eager to come back to class.

“I am so excited and have been waiting for this day to have a full classroom again,” she said.

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

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