First day of school feels ‘different’ in ways big and small
Adrian School District educational assistant Whitney Thornley hugs her son Tucker goodbye Wednesday, Aug. 26, on the first day of in-person classes for the kindergarten. The seven students will have two hours a day of in-person instruction while maintaining social distances and health protocols. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
The school hallways were empty for the first day of class, walls devoid of colorful artwork or welcoming signs. No excited children dug through backpacks, no laughing students raced to class, no parents said goodbye through tears.
“It’s very strange,” said Krissy Walker, Adrian School District administrative assistant for the elementary and middle school. “It’s very quiet.”
But inside the classrooms, learning restarted Tuesday, Aug. 25. Teachers in the far eastern Oregon community sat in front of their classroom monitors, demonstrating lessons and answering the usual first-day questions.
“I want to try to do everything I normally would do for the start of the year, just from a distance,” said first grade teacher Sarah Martin. A face shield sat on her desk for whenever she left the room.
A few Oregon schools began opening this week, with district start dates stretching into late September. Many school districts pushed back their start dates a week to allow for extra teacher and family training. High community levels of coronavirus cases have forced most schools into comprehensive distance learning plans.
Adrian is starting with two to three hours a day of real-time classes online, with the rest of the day for recorded lessons, homework and teacher support efforts. Parents, students and teachers described this year as “different,” the word freighted with good and bad expectations.
High school senior Teanna Pierce said she thinks this year will be easier than past years but she worries whether it will prepare her for college.
Eighth grader Caitlyn Griffin thinks it will be better than last spring because she knows what to expect and the return of grading will force her to work harder.
“I’m excited to see how it will turn out,” said junior Walter Riley Griffin.
Their mother, MaryJane Pierce, hopes the school will be diligent in reaching out to parents if their kids aren’t in online classes. She said distance learning is difficult for working parents and older siblings.
“It’s a hard thing to decide between putting food on the table and making sure your kid is educated,” she said. “It’s not a good situation for kids having to take care of kids.”
Twin eighth graders Madison and Macy Fordyce said they had trouble learning from home because they became bored and were easily distracted.
Their mother, Amanda Carr, said she hopes the children can go back to school soon.
“I hate it all,” she said. “I have to work full time, and it’s a little frustrating.”
Kelly Tolman, high school English teacher and newly named “innovation specialist,” helps find the software the district needs and gets teachers up to speed. Technology and training, however, are not the real hurdles, he said.
“The biggest problem is simply that comprehensive distance learning is not a good match for most families,” he said. “Children don’t teach themselves, and parents are not educators.”
High school classes began Wednesday. Tolman said it felt more like a return from last year’s spring break than a first day of school.
There were no community members and school board members to greet students at the doors, no all-school assembly or slamming lockers.
“I haven’t had to threaten anyone with detention yet,” said Tolman, with a smile. “You like to see the energy in kids. I miss that part.”
High school social studies teacher Deidre Brown was thrilled to see her students again on her monitor, but she also missed the energy.
Teachers can’t see the body language clues for when a student is following along, confused or losing interest. Mute buttons and electronic thumbs are less engaging than shouted questions and excitedly raised hands.
Brown spent some time reassuring her students and reminding them all the ways they can get help.
“I know this can be overwhelming,” she told them. “Communication is key.”
On Monday and Tuesday, every teacher held eight to 10 hourlong mini-orientations in person with individual families. Students picked up books and technology; teachers explained how stuff worked and what this school year would look like. Despite a complicated week with a different class plan every day, students said they welcomed having a more reliable schedule than they had in the spring.
Adrian created small cohorts so it can shift quickly to in-person classes if the metrics allow. The district gave up some elective classes so it would have enough teachers for the smaller classes necessary for social distancing.
Adrian, with just under 300 students, has lost enrollment to online schools, homeschooling and nearby Idaho, where in-person classes are allowed.
Some parents and school board members are frustrated with the rules keeping kids from classrooms. The Adrian School Board is considering suing the Oregon Department of Education to force open classrooms.
Superintendent Kevin Purnell said some parents have refused to come into the school if they have to wear masks and have threatened to pull their students out of school if they are required to wear masks when in class.
Even so, many parents seem frustrated with Salem, not their school. Parents interviewed during the orientations praised educators’ efforts to create a better distance learning experience.
“They know if we could open up, we would,” Purnell said.
Teachers profess a mixture of confidence and apprehension. They are more prepared than they were in the spring, and they have learned from that experience. But they worry the technology will fail or that they just can’t connect with students through the screen.
“I definitely feel more pressure because it’s unknown and I don’t want to get it wrong,” said Martin, the first grade teacher.
Some of Martin’s first session was spent on the new normal, teaching students how to use their mute buttons and how to do a brain exercise on the computer. Some of it was more familiar, getting to know her kids and guiding them through art projects.
“I can’t wait to see you tomorrow,” Martin told the students before leaving the online meeting room.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA