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Excitement drowns out COVID-19 fears as students return to classrooms
Julian Guerra Canchola enjoys coloring Tuesday during his first day in his Talent Elementary first grade classroom. The Phoenix-Talent School District began in-person instruction this week for kindergarten and first grade. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Gustavo Morales waited outside Talent Elementary School on Tuesday among the parents socially distanced and wearing masks.
His son Caleb ran into his arms, excited after his first day of in-person instruction.
“I want to go to school more,” he said.
Gustavo wants that too: “He’s driving us crazy at home.”
The Phoenix-Talent School District began offering in-person learning for kindergarteners and first graders this week under an exemption for districts affected by the September wildfires.
Superintendent Brent Barry said the district plans to add grade levels and instruction time through January but rising COVID-19 rates in Jackson County could scuttle that schedule.
The fire scars still weigh heavily on the Phoenix and Talent communities south of Medford, where more than 2,300 families lost their homes. But this slice of the familiar provided a much-needed lift.
The staff and families reveled in the return most of Oregon is wishing for, while getting a hands-on lesson in ways the school day has changed.
The logistics are tangled, from making multiple bus runs to the same neighborhood to finding schedules that can accommodate working parents. One girl is attending from Indiana. A staff member travels to nearby Medford to help some students.
Parent Jaime Jones worries about the coronavirus, as people she knows personally have recently caught it, but she is still thrilled to have her son Colby Blackmore back in school. It’s inconvenient to get him to school with both parents working, she said, but their work also keeps them from giving him enough attention at home.
“For eight hours a day, it’s just him saying, ‘Mom, I’m bored,’” she said.
Colby said school was more fun than home.
Parent Ashley Rendon also said she was weighing the risks of the coronavirus, looking at the health of her family and other precautions they are taking, but she thought it was worth it for her son Mico to have the in-person support and hands-on lessons he needs.
Mico said being on the computer too much during the day made his eyes “hot.” He said sometimes he puts his head down and falls asleep at the computer but that didn’t happen in school.
After the kindergarteners left, the first graders arrived.
Makenna Willden was excited because “I hadn’t been here in a long time.”
In some ways, it felt like a first day of school, but 2020’s strangeness continued to rear its head. Parents were asked to stay in their cars and not come in the school. A staff person walked the halls with a hand-held sprayer, squirting disinfectant on doorknobs and flat surfaces.
Staff member Claudia Montoya helped students on and off the bus. She said the energy was different from a usual first day.
“They were so excited,” she said. “I didn’t see a single tear.”
First-grade teacher Kathleen Lemcke marveled at how quiet her class was. The half-size class and the big spaces between chairs cut down the chatter. She read them the book “First Day Jitters,” but mostly they were happy, with questions about lunch and play time.
First-grade teacher Jordan Lambert was making her own discoveries. A new teacher, she had students in her classroom for the first time.
She said her students participated more in activities than when they were online. Of course, that also meant more interruptions, and she couldn’t just mute them.
Principal Heather Lowe Rogers said the limited in-person learning is helping the school prepare for a hybrid model with students attending four days a week for half the day. Parents, faculty and students are learning the protocols and new habits.
Lowe clutched her heart when she talked about how good it is to see the students in person. She said distance learning was difficult and having students back in class has improved her staff’s whole mindset.
“This brings the joy back to this job,” Lowe said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
The Phoenix-Talent School District Families Fire Relief Fund is taking donations. OSBA has also created a Wildfire Resources page with links to places to donate to fire victims around the state.
Jaime Jones takes the traditional first day of school picture of her son Colby Blackmore on Tuesday at Talent Elementary School. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)