Students finally return to Jewell’s classrooms
Second grader Griffin Thomas Wood arrives Monday with his mother, Susan, for the first day of school at Jewell. He said he wasn’t worried about wearing his shield all day because he could take it off during meal and snack times. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Students piled off the Jewell School District bus Monday morning, some skipping and dancing, some shy or moping. At the same time, parents and children walked to the cafeteria door, the littlest learners clutching a hand.
Students and adults radiated the usual first-day-of-school excitement, but the smiles were hidden under masks. A little extra anxiety and trepidation also hung in the air like the smoke and ash that had delayed the school’s start for a week.
By dint of its size and location, the smallest school district in Clatsop County is one of a relatively few Oregon schools allowed to offer in-person learning to all its students. State and county COVID-19 metrics have forced most students into distance learning.
Jewell parents, teachers and students are relieved to be back in school, but the coronavirus pandemic has changed the world and no one knows quite what to expect.
Second grader Griffin Thomas Wood arrived holding hands with his mother, upbeat about school.
Susan Wood said she was thrilled her son would have in-person teaching.
“The only thing she feels good about is getting us out of the house,” Griffin chirped up.
“Not going to lie,” Susan said with a smile and laugh, “It’s been 6 months.”
The Jewell community has been disease free but just one case could close the whole school down, according to Clatsop County Public Health Director Michael McNickle.
“It’s a different ball game for rural schools,” he said.
Jewell School Board Chair Michael Stahly said the district would do everything it could to keep children in classes but the students’ safety is primary.
Students who arrived by bus used a separate entrance from students who arrived by foot or car and sat at separate tables to maintain cohorts. Seats were marked with blue tape to encourage social distancing.
Christina Renville, a teaching assistant, met walk-up students at the door, visually checking for signs of illness and offering masks and hand sanitizer. She said parents had been understanding, even when she had to tell them only staff were allowed inside. Parents were asked to wait until their child was cleared in case they had to take the kid home.
Nicole Clark was happy to have her son Colton starting first grade in person but she didn’t like the masks.
“I feel it’s too much for kids to wear masks all day,” she said. “I know the staff will help the kids get through it though.”
Second grader Kinley Busch said her mask hurt her ears but she was OK with wearing it if it meant she could come to school.
About a quarter of Jewell’s 180 students opted for online schooling or homeschool. Jewell is too small to offer its own online program, but its students can attend neighboring Vernonia’s online school.
The rest of Jewell’s students are split between a Monday-Wednesday and a Tuesday-Thursday schedule.
Fridays will be for staff prep work, curriculum alignment and professional training around social and emotional learning.
“Also a heavy dose of communicating with our families,” Superintendent Stephen Phillips said. “Kids drop through the cracks when school is Monday through Friday and we see them five days a week, let alone this environment.”
Phillips keeps the county’s coronavirus statistics on a white board in his office. If Clatsop’s metrics force Jewell to halt in-person classes, the district would return to paper packets, Phillips said. A lack of internet access in the area makes any sort of online program unworkable, he said.
“If we tried to do some kind of comprehensive online learning program, we would be leaving out a third to half of our student body,” Phillips said. “That’s not fair. That’s not right.”
The district is taking every safety precaution it can. Tape and signs mark one-way traffic patterns and places to stand. Desks are spread out.
“We are going to be as strict as we can,” Phillips said. “If there is an outbreak, I don’t want it to be our fault.”
In Kayla Rausch’s fifth grade class Monday morning, they talked about what an unusual summer it had been and how they felt about it. Mid-sentence, Rausch nonchalantly reminded a student to put his mask back on.
Face coverings are the inescapable sign life has changed. Students sported an array of masks, bandanas and other face coverings, from generic medical-type masks to colorful graphic designs.
Phillips said masks had to conform to dress code policies that forbid alcohol, drug or other inappropriate messages.
The pre-kindergarten students are not required to wear masks, but three of the four arrived Monday with one. Pre-kindergarten teacher Jennifer Miller said she spoke with parents about how aggressively they wanted her to remind their children to keep their masks on.
Jewell High School social studies teacher Mark Freeman expects “101 obstacles and 35 unforeseen speed bumps,” but he said he is excited to get back into the classroom.
“The majority of the students, despite how much they may roll their eyes in front of me during class time, they absolutely recognized — and the majority of them admitted — that they wanted to come back to school,” he said.
Terri Baier, who teaches third to fifth grade reading, feels fortunate to work in a district where the students can come to class. She sees the greatest benefit with being able to provide differentiated instruction for the struggling students and the advanced students.
Baier worries that students won’t grow as much this year as they did last year. She hopes there are other benefits, though.
“I think the kids will know how much we believe in them and that we are here even through difficult times,” she said. “We’re here, and we’ll get through it together.”
As students arrived at school, many were happy just to be out of the house and seeing their friends.
“It’s better than being online,” said junior Kierra Butori. “I was bored stiff at home.”
John Cutts arrived with his first-grader, Autumn, peeking out from behind his arm.
“Kids should go to school,” he said. “They need to be with other kids. They need the interaction.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA