As Tristan Robinson went through the checklist his parents created to keep him on track each morning, he was thrilled to skip one particular step: Getting out the computer for his online classes.
Instead, Thursday was the kindergartner’s “first day of school” — his first day being in a classroom in front of a teacher with other students since the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools and many day care and preschool centers last March. Robinson was among nearly 100 elementary school students who began to return to classrooms on Thursday as the Astoria School District slowly reopened to in-person instruction.
Over the next week, an estimated 507 children in kindergarten though fifth grade will return to classrooms at Astor Elementary and Lewis and Clark Elementary. If all goes well and case metrics remain low in Clatsop County, the school district plans to begin to do the same for middle school and high school students beginning March 11.
All students in the school district started the school year online, but the district brought a limited number of students back into buildings for specific classes and activities in recent months. In January, the school board voted in favor of a phased reopening beginning with the youngest students.
The district will continue to follow guidelines established by the state that outline how and when schools can open given the local number and rate of positive virus cases. These metrics became advisory in January, but districts who want to stray from them to reopen must comply with other measures, including the ability to provide on-site testing of staff and students who show any symptoms of the virus.
As they dropped off their children on Thursday, parents told The Astorian they were excited for schools to reopen. The students are only returning for three hours a day for now, but it gives parents who may be working from home more breathing room. It is especially welcome to parents whose children may have struggled with online coursework or social isolation.
At Astor Elementary, some students posed for a traditional first day of school photo, beaming as their parents snapped pictures on their smartphones. Then school staff gathered students and talked to them about how to keep a safe distance from each other. One staff member had them stretch out their arms to show them what kind of space they needed to maintain.
With their arms held in front of them, they began to line up on markers painted on the pavement. When several children began to group up, chatting enthusiastically, a staff member quickly jumped in and reminded them to keep their distance.
Inside the elementary schools, red arrows and tall orange safety cones mark out “lanes” for students. There are yellow signs depicting two figures standing apart from each other to remind students and staff to keep their distance. When they go home, the students will still have some online coursework.
Not all of the school district’s elementary school children will return to in-person instruction, but Superintendent Craig Hoppes has already heard from some parents who are now changing their minds and want to send their children to classrooms. For now, the primary limit to the number of children who can return at once is classroom capacity. Under state guidelines, students must maintain a certain distance from each other within classrooms.
At Astor Elementary, with its larger classrooms, this is not so much of an issue. But Lewis and Clark Elementary, which serves grades three through five, smaller classrooms could be a barrier. Other challenges will come when the middle school and high school reopen, Hoppes warned board members at a meeting Wednesday.
Even with just the elementary schools open for three hours a day five days a week, buses are running constantly as they shuttle different cohorts of students to and from school. When the higher grades return, start times may look different to accommodate possible transportation schedules.
For now, though, Hoppes said Thursday morning, it is good to see students walk into school buildings.
His biggest concern as he stood on the sidewalk outside Astor Elementary was “to get them in and get them used to being in school.”
It was a concern Kate Gohr, the principal at Astor Elementary, shared.
“Is Miss Gohr happy?” board member Jimmy Pearson had asked at the Wednesday night meeting after Hoppes briefed them on the school reopening plans and procedures.
“My biggest concern is just getting (students) in and getting them out,” Gohr replied. “My concern is not about having them in the building. That’s the easy part.”