Students in Adam Roosevelt’s kindergarten class had a special guest on their first day in school at Scott Elementary School in Northeast Portland: Gov. Kate Brown.
With names on their socially distanced desks, students answered Brown’s questions.
“Are you glad to be back in school, in the classroom?” Brown asked.
A kindergartener named Ocean took a second to answer, but nodded yes.
This was the first time Ocean and his classmates had been inside their school building. Roosevelt told Brown the students spent their first day learning how to be at school during COVID-19.
“Wearing our masks, keeping our social distancing...” Roosevelt said. “Everything is new for them!”
Scott Elementary was the second school Brown visited Thursday, after stopping at Lincoln Elementary in Woodburn. At Scott, Brown walked the halls, stopping into classrooms with students inside them for the first time in more than a year.
Sanitizing stations were in each classroom, and everyone was wearing masks, some with designs or characters from a TV show or movie. Tape and stickers on the hallway floors marked where students should stand.
This week marked the return to in-person classes for many Oregon elementary students, following an executive order from Brown to reopen schools for hybrid or full in-person instruction. Students in middle and high schools are expected to be back by the week of April 19 under Brown’s order. Thousands of Oregon students have already returned to school in-person, either on a full-time or hybrid basis.
That hadn’t been the case for students in the Portland metro area, until now.
This return for kindergarten and first-grade students is just the start for Portland, Oregon’s largest school district. More elementary students will be back to school in-person next week, with older students returning later this month.
Speaking to Brown at Scott, PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said Thursday is the start of a return to a fuller reopening.
“It gets us back in the flow of campus life, and there’ll be more students here tomorrow, and more on Monday,” Guerrero said. “The school will start to fill up.”
Not every student is heading back to school in-person this year. Scott principal Megan McCarter said about 40% of students will remain in distance learning.
“We also have some families that, for them, still providing distance learning is the best option for a variety of different reasons,” McCarter said. Students may live with family members vulnerable to COVID-19, or find a couple of hours of school in-person is too difficult to accommodate.
“Sometimes the routine they have set up is actually just the better routine to stick with for the last eight weeks.”
Other students may be medically fragile, or otherwise at higher risk of COVID-19 themselves. Teacher Dawn Soderquist said seven of the twelve students in her self-contained classroom would return to school in-person. Touring the empty classroom, Soderquist showed Brown how the class was prepared for students with higher needs, from personal protective equipment and full-body gowns to signs and buttons for students checking in at the beginning of the day.
“We have a variety of ways of communicating with our kids,” Soderquist said.
District-wide, Guerrero said, about two-thirds of families want some in-person schooling. But, he said, it was important for the district to have a model that offers family a choice.
“School leaders have done their best to really tailor the in-person balance with the attention to students who are continuing in distance learning and make sure that we maintain that quality educational program,” Guerrero said.
Not all schools will be back in session by Brown’s deadline. That includes some schools in east Multnomah County, where family surveys have shown more hesitancy to return in-person. Despite Brown’s order to reopen schools, she acknowledged that it may happen more slowly in some places than others.
“Some districts are going to take a little more time to make this happen, and I think it’s really important for that to be a local conversation at the local level,” Brown said.
“It’s important that there be conversations with staff, with teachers, with the educator workforce, with the leaders and with the parents, and that it happen quickly and efficiently but also that it happen safely and comfortably for the community.”
School’s are reopening in Portland amid a rise in COVID-19 diagnoses in Oregon. Last week, the Oregon Health Authority reported a 28% increase in cases from the week before. Oregon schools have seen a number of COVID-19 cases, but officials say schools have not been a source of transmission of the virus.
At Scott Elementary, McCarter also shared with Brown how students and staff fared during distance learning. Over the last year, staff and members of the school community have helped families get internet access, devices, food and gift cards, she said.
On Thursday, everyone came together again. McCarter said some teachers not assigned to classrooms on this first day came to school anyway, on their planning day. She said they greeted parents at drop-off and helped manage new procedures, like bathroom breaks, throughout the day.
“They just really wanted to help, they knew how important it was, especially for K-1, who really don’t know how to do school, to have more adults,” McCarter said.
Stopping in Kristen Roosevelt’s first grade classroom, Brown greeted students as they sat at their desks, some wearing crowns that read “I am a first grader!”
“Already on the first day, they’re doing math questions, and following all the rules,” Roosevelt said.
Brown crouched down to talk to a first grader named Cali. The student talked about waking up early for school and seeing her “besties,” her friends.
“I hope you enjoy your first day at school,” Brown said to Cali.
“I already enjoyed it!” Cali responded.