First-day jitters launch familiar school excitement
Armand Larive Middle School Principal Stacie Roberts (right) reassures new seventh grader Annabelle Kurkinen with the help of Annabelle’s mother, Megan, on Monday, Aug. 29, the first day of school in Hermiston. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
A familiar excitement coursed through Hermiston on Monday morning: first day of school. Yellow school buses again crept along the streets. Animated children, sometimes with adults, walked the sidewalks under clear blue skies.
Even the delayed opening of the district’s six elementary schools carried with it an undercurrent of joy.
In the two weeks before Labor Day and the week after, most Oregon K-8 schools start a new academic year. This year they are hoping for another step toward normal and no COVID-19 disruptions. Parents, students and educators are nervous about new classes and relationships rather than masks and social distancing, to the relief and delight of most.
The Hermiston School District in northeast Oregon is enjoying a particularly bracing mixture of familiar and new as it opens two fresh elementaries. While students streamed into the two middle schools and the high school Monday, workers were putting finishing touches on Rocky Heights and Loma Vista elementaries.
Hermiston normally opens all its schools on the same day, but the elementaries won’t open until Sept. 6 to give teachers in the new schools more time to get ready.
Thanks to bonds, Hermiston has been steadily updating its facilities. The new Rocky Heights replaced the district’s oldest school on the same land. Loma Vista is an all-new school in open fields on the northeast edge of town.
The two buildings added roughly 700 seats to Hermiston’s capacity, getting rid of modular classrooms and giving each elementary some flex room. Some schools had been so crowded they couldn’t take new students during the year, forcing children to bus across town.
Part of the bond’s selling point was utility to the communities. The new elementaries have full gyms available for public events.
“Great communities have great schools,” Superintendent Tricia Mooney said. “When the community as a whole can see the benefits of the school, the more supportive the community is.”
Parent Yvette Medelez said the new schools speak to the community’s investment in their children, a visible return on “many a tax.”
She has three boys in school. Brayden will be a seventh grader at Armand Larive, Benny will be in sixth grade there and Bryan will be in kindergarten at the new Rocky Heights.
Bryan is bubbling over with excitement since he went to a preparatory kindergarten camp earlier this month. He happily listed off new friends he has already made and old friends he got to see again.
The new playground also has his approval.
He said he is looking forward to “learning about cutting” and “learning how to do stuff the right way.”
School Board Chair Josh Goller is proud of the district’s improved learning environment, not only in the new schools but also with the relieved crowding.
Goller has enjoyed the runup to this year more than in recent years.
“This feels more like what we are accustomed to,” he said.
Parent Amy Wieseler said this year seems “more secure,” with less concern about school shutting down or moving online.
Wieseler has three children in Hermiston schools. She said the updated schools show the district’s leaders are seeing needs and spending money wisely for the students.
Brenna Wieseler, who will be a fourth grader at Highland Hills Elementary, said she is not jealous of the students at the new schools.
“All the schools are basically the same,” she said. “Some are newer, some are older, but they still teach the same stuff.”
Concerns remain, though.
“It doesn’t quite feel back to normal,” said parent Misty Grabeel. “Our teachers are not back to normal. Our students are not back to normal.”
Grabeel has two children in Hermiston High School, and she is worried about student safety, staff safety and the general mental health of children and adults in schools. She said she has been reassured in school board meetings that school leaders are thinking about safety issues and procedures. Grabeel also appreciates that Mooney has talked about extra support for staff and counseling for students.
“We just need to find a way to get the high morale back and bring back the joy,” Grabeel said. “We need to not only make it through; we need to make it through and find the joy.”
Some of the new education environment intruded on Monday’s excitement.
Within minutes of Armand Larive’s opening its doors, a lockdown warning blared out. Adults scrambled to move children out of hallways and to lock doors and turn off lights. Within minutes, a heavily armed police officer arrived, but it was already becoming clear it was a false alarm. Work on some electrical wiring had triggered the alarm. Still, it took roughly 20 minutes to open the front doors again.
Students and parents waiting in the office were more concerned about class schedules and enrollment than the lockdown.
Seventh grader Annabelle Kurkinen said she was extremely scared this morning – because she was new to the school and didn’t know where her classes were. The alarm didn’t bother her because she had been through many lockdown drills in Burns.
Likewise, her mother, Megan, was unconcerned, having experienced lockdowns as a kindergarten teacher in Portland.
Principal Stacie Roberts said she was proud of her staff’s response, keeping the children calm and secure. Soon enough the bustle resumed.
“This is what school used to feel like: smiling faces and kids giving you side hugs,” Roberts said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
Students crowd the halls of Armand Larive Middle School in Hermiston on the first day of school. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)