With her Scooby-Doo hoodie, camo backpack and white mask, Anais was ready for her first in-person day of eighth grade.

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She’s also kind of nervous, and worried about being lonely. The classes at Ron Russell Middle School have been in cohorts since the beginning of the year as they were learning remotely, so she already knows her classmates.

“The majority of my group is actually boys,” Anais said.

“I only have one friend in that group.”

After more than a year, thousands of Oregon students like Anais are just returning to school, receiving some in-person instruction. That includes several students in OPB’s Class of 2025, a group of students now in eighth grade.

Like more than half of the Class of 2025 students, Anais attends Ron Russell Middle School in Southeast Portland. Hybrid instruction at Ron Russell started last week, with different cohorts, or groups of students, attending on different days.

Each cohort even had a specific place to enter the school, with teachers and staff outside and inside the school to shepherd students from class to class.

After picking up her schedule, Anais walked into school for the first time in more than a year.

The school’s cafeteria, usually filled with tables and chairs for lunch — is still full of tables and chairs, but everything is folded up and put away.

Class of 2025 student Anais on her first day of hybrid instruction at Ron Russell Middle School in Portland, Oregon.

Class of 2025 student Anais on her first day of hybrid instruction at Ron Russell Middle School in Portland, Oregon.

Elizabeth Miller / OPB

More than 350,000 Oregon students are getting some in-person instruction now. In some schools, it looks a lot like what Anais is doing — 4 hours of in-person class twice a week. Some schools are offering less, and others have students back full-time.

Anais’ school had not planned to offer hybrid instruction this year. Instead, the school planned to remain in distance learning, with limited in-person instruction through the spring. That changed with Gov. Kate Brown’s order directing all schools to offer hybrid instruction by mid-April. Still, many students are remaining home in distance learning, including several in the Class of 2025.

Anais wanted to come back and see her friends, though she’s finding that school is not the same as it was.

She made her way up the stairs to her first class of the day: math with Mr. Senffner. Normally, a middle school hallway at the beginning of the day would be loud and full of students.

Now, hallways are mostly empty and quiet, except for teachers excitedly greeting their students.

Anais greeted them back.

“Hi! I’m short,” she said, as she realized for the first time how tall her math teacher is.

There’s excitement. There’s hesitation. It’s like the first day of school.

Teacher Dan Senffner has only five kids in his physical classroom.

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“Relax, make yourself at home,” he said. “How does it feel?”

One student said it felt “weird” to be back. Anais already misses her little brother, Diego, who is at home.

Class of 2025 student Anais, an eighth-grader at Ron Russell Middle School, during her first in-person math class this year.

Class of 2025 student Anais, an eighth-grader at Ron Russell Middle School, during her first in-person math class this year.

Elizabeth Miller

The rest of the math class is online, with another teacher helping the virtual classroom.

In-person students sit, masked up, at desks apart from each other. Windows are open and arrows on the floor in blue tape mark the flow of traffic.

Class begins with morning announcements from Ron Russell principal Michael Contreras, and another reminder that school in 2021 is not the same.

“There are lots of rules and procedures to keep you safe — make sure you’re following those,” Contreras said over the school’s PA.

Senffner starts the class with a question, asking students what they’ve learned over the last year. Anais says she got better at drawing.

The focus of today’s class is geometry. Students — both virtual and online — work independently, with Senffner walking around to check on the in-person students. They draw shapes, learning about the Pythagorean theorem.

Anais said she’s tired after waking up early at 6 a.m., worried she’d miss school. Classes didn’t start until around 10.

Senffner ends his lesson early to explain COVID-19 safety protocols to students and the plan for the rest of the day.

Ron Russell Middle School teacher Dan Senffner teaches eighth grade math on the first day of hybrid instruction for some students, including Class of 2025 student Anais.

Ron Russell Middle School teacher Dan Senffner teaches eighth grade math on the first day of hybrid instruction for some students, including Class of 2025 student Anais.

Elizabeth Miller

From wearing marks, and the consequences of not wearing a mask, to hand sanitizing, there are new rules to follow. Rules govern when to go to the bathroom, and drinking from water bottles. Students have to bring their own bottles, and they have about five seconds to take a sip.

“I’m not going to be sitting here with a stopwatch and timing you,” Senffner admitted.

As Anais and one of her friends in her class make their way to choir, their next class, a teacher catches up with them to check in.

The hallway remains quiet. Classes are staggered in such a way that students don’t really see other students in between classes.

In choir, Anais reconnects with another friend. After choir, they walk outside for snack time before the last two classes of the day.

It’s a short, 10-minute break, meant to give students time to socialize. It’s not quite lunch. Anais and her friends don’t even have a snack. But they’re together again, huddled and talking to each other.

Anais said she’s happy to be back.

“Seeing my friends ... means I’m no longer lonely,” she said. “Here’s one friend, here’s another friend. I might have some friends around here that I can’t even recognize right now.”

For those 10 minutes, students are back together, socializing. Small groups of kids and teachers huddle around each other.

It’s the loudest school has been so far — and the most normal that things have felt all day.

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