Salem-Keizer kindergarten and first-grade students return to brick-and-mortar schools

Natalie Pate
Salem Statesman Journal

At 7:25 a.m. Tuesday — the sun out, the air a cool 38 degrees — educators shuffled into Battle Creek Elementary School in south Salem with extra boxes, bags and boards for their classrooms. 

Minutes later, Spencer Edwards, 6, stood at the front entrance, waiting to go inside.

Edwards, holding her mother's hand, said she was most excited to see her teacher. She held up a pointer and thumb, pinching them together and squinting through the small space between.

"Little bit nervous," she said. 

In many ways, the morning felt like the first day of a new year, even though educators have been working with students remotely since August.

Tuesday was the first day of Salem-Keizer Public Schools' hybrid learning model, in which students attend two days a week in person and continue virtual learning or get other support the other three days. Students in kindergarten and first grade started this week.

Kindergartener Courage Wilkins sits socially distanced from her peers during the first day of in-person learning on Tuesday at Battle Creek Elementary School.

Parents arrived before 8 a.m. at Battle Creek and took photos of their children by the school's main entrance. Some held signs with the date or encouraging messages.

Educators directed traffic, waving and saying "Good morning!" 

Students wore some of their favorite outfits and costumes, decked out with princesses, animals and Baby Yoda. Students at Kennedy Elementary in Keizer got a red-carpet welcome.

Kids carried backpacks almost as large as them. Some waved back at their families, while others seemed focused on school ahead. A few let out tears. 

A similar but different atmosphere

Students stood on X's drawn on the sidewalk outside Battle Creek to help them maintain six feet of distance. At Cesar E. Chávez Elementary in northeast Salem, there were colorful lines drawn.

Everyone was wearing a mask. Some used the opportunity to express their own personal flairs, showing off masks adorned with Sonic the Hedgehog, flowers, unicorns, Frozen characters, or paw prints.

As children exited the buses at Chávez later in the morning, they were immediately greeted by a staff member pumping hand sanitizer. 

"I know it's a little scary," one employee reassured a student as they walked inside, "but we've got you, OK?"

At Battle Creek, red tape created a rectangle around each of the desks to signify the student's space. Blue tape on their individual desks showed where to put their supplies so they don't touch their neighbor's.

Staff with gloves delivered food to the desks and opened the children's milk boxes.

"Make sure you pull your mask up," teachers reminded kids, as some masks slipped below their noses.

At Chávez, about 150 students will return this week, out of the more than 500 students school-wide. About 120 students will return to Battle Creek. Eventually, all 400 or so students in the school will be back part-time.

Whiskers the Wildcat greets kindergarteners and first-graders as they line up on the red carpet for the first day of re-entry at Kennedy Elementary in Keizer on Tuesday.

Battle Creek Principal Beth Freeborn explained safety protocols in place, including two isolation rooms — affectionately called the "carebear" rooms after the school's mascot — in case students exhibit COVID-19 symptoms while at school.

There are extra masks and hand sanitizer displayed throughout, and stickers on the hallway floors show where to stand. The front office is open to staff only. Guests answer questions about their wellness and exposure when signing in.

"Teachers and staff are working so hard, around the clock ... and are excited to have kids back. We're ready," Freeborn said. 

"We do need some grace," she added. "We're doing school in a new way we've never done before."

Rollout for the hybrid model

Other grades will return to physical schools this month as well, with students in grades 2-3 starting March 9 and students in grades 4-5 on March 16. 

Additional rollout plans for middle and high school students will be shared in the coming weeks, officials said, with the district hosting informational sessions on secondary schools the week of March 15.

The last day of the school year for all Salem-Keizer students is June 15.

Kindergarten teacher Molly Swain talks with students at the beginning of the first day of in-person learning on Tuesday, March 2, 2021 at Battle Creek Elementary School in Salem, Oregon.

Co-Assistant Superintendent Iton Udosenata said the incremental re-entry allows staff to further iron out kinks as they adjust to the new way of teaching.

"Hopefully this reduces the stress for parents coming next week, knowing the staff is already in a routine," he said. 

In the hybrid model, students either attend in person Tuesday/Thursday or Wednesday/Friday to allow for smaller class sizes. Officials said Mondays are reserved for targeted support, outreach, staff planning and professional development. 

While at school, students across the district receive all their meals at no cost. Students are given breakfast and lunch on-site and will be offered supper as they leave. All elementary schools now have Grab-N-Go meal distribution sites.

Re-entry: Salem-Keizer provides details about students resuming in-person classes

"I really feel we are ready and have safety protocols in all areas of the school," Chávez Principal Teresa Tolento said.

Many have expressed concerns about schools re-opening for any form of in-person learning, especially since COVID-19 case rates are much higher now than they were when schools first closed last year.

Families unwilling to adhere to the safety protocols, such as wearing masks, as well as families not yet comfortable returning to in-person classes, will continue distanced learning. 

Kindergarten students sit spaced apart as they transition back to in-person learning on Tuesday, March 2, 2021 at Battle Creek Elementary School in Salem.

Teams like Tolento's have been adjusting to teaching in person again during "limited in-person instruction," also known as LIPI, which began in the district last fall for students with the greatest needs. She's been sending out communications to families to assure them and answer any questions. 

"We are so excited," Tolento said, "and the kids are so excited."

For more information on Salem-Keizer's re-entry plans and protocols, go to https://salkeiz.k12.or.us/ready-to-learn/.

Natalie Pate is the education reporter for the Statesman Journal. She can be reached at npate@StatesmanJournal.com, 503-399-6745, Twitter @NataliePateGwin, or Facebook at www.Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist.