Student returning to school
Philomath High junior Marcos Garcia picks up a schedule from a table manned by Denee Newton during Tuesday’s return to classroom learning. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Sitting on fold-up chairs in the high school parking lot, a group of Philomath students enjoy getting together for “Coffee Tuesday” — an opportunity to hang out and prepare to take on the school day.

On Tuesday morning this week, the gathering featured a special twist because as the group’s Noah Curtis said, “It was the first day of school.”

“It’s super exciting and it feels unreal to be honest. It doesn’t even feel like we’re back in school,” Curtis said before heading in the front entrance to be screened and to pick up a schedule.

High school students in Philomath began the transition into hybrid learning on Tuesday with a school day that runs from 9 a.m.-2:15 p.m. The students are split up into two cohorts based on their last names — A through H and I through Z.

Meanwhile, at the middle school, sixth graders only started on Tuesday but they will be joined by seventh and eighth graders on Wednesday with a day that features distance learning in the morning and in-classroom instruction from 12:30-3 p.m.

“Going through our numbers, we had all but one student show up for the in-person classes,” Philomath Middle School Principal Steve Bell said about the sixth graders. “That’s a pretty remarkable attendance number on any day. … They’re excited, we’re excited, watching them walk through the hallways and following the directional arrows and just following protocols, they’re doing a great job.”

Mike Bussard welcoming students
Principal Mike Bussard welcomes student to in-classroom learning on Tuesday morning in front of the high school. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

PHS Principal Mike Bussard could feel the buzz in his building.

“I poked my head in a lot of classrooms today and I think every teacher said about the same thing — ‘it was nice to have actual students in class instead of staring at a laptop screen,’” Bussard said. “Getting people to engage and having actual students here just re-energizes you … I know for me, personally, it does.”

Bussard said a lot of teachers that he talked to feel the same way and added, “You could see a little bit more of a jump in their step today. It was nice to see.”

At the middle school, Bell believes students are excited to be back.

“There are a number of kids that are just really ready,” he said. “I think tomorrow (Wednesday) with the seventh and eighth graders, we’ll see even more energy and more excitement with just being here and able to be in the building for classes.”

Bussard said attendance Tuesday at the high school for the first day was outstanding.

“It was just great welcoming students back, just saying ‘hey, we missed you, glad to have you here,’” Bussard said. “This is what this building’s made for; it’s made for our students. Even under these weird circumstances, it’s still a whole heck of a lot better than nothing at all.”

Transitioning into hybrid learning, PHS has maintained the same schedule it has had this entire academic year, a part of the equation that helps limit the level of adjustments for students and staff.

Bussard said that as the master schedule was put together — which included significant work from the counseling department — it was determined that classrooms should be limited to around 12 to 13 students to accommodate state-required social distancing, thus, the cohorts were established. A normal class would have 26 to 28 students.

Bussard said more than 75% of its students are returning to in-classroom learning. About 15% remain in distance learning and the rest have opted for Philomath Academy.

One of the oddest situations with students returning is the necessity to have a “closed campus.” For example, students can’t hop in their car to go hit their favorite lunch spot. They can either pick up lunches provided by the school or bring their own.

“Hopefully we get to the point where we open back up our lunch,” Bussard said. “That would be a huge help because that’s going to be the most difficult thing to monitor.

“We are going to be doing the best we can and we’ll make adjustments if things are not working,” he added. “Hopefully things work out but that’s our responsibility to keep school open.”

Bussard places an emphasis on making the high school environment welcoming for the students.

“We do not want this to seem like a prison … truly I can tell you that our teaching staff, our support staff, our office personnel, they’re excited to have our students back in school and that’s the atmosphere that we want,” Bussard said.

For getting around from classroom to classroom, Bussard said the students are asked to think about “driving rules” — staying to the right in hallways, stairs and in the school building’s wings.

“You’re talking high school students so are they going to abide by it 24/7? No, but it’s just friendly reminders,” Bussard said. “Everyone understands the madness that we’re all operating under and the kids were great today.”

As mentioned, Tuesday’s middle school opening involved only the sixth graders. Bell said the day featured a lot of orientation-type activities with introductions, tours and welcomings.

“They were excited and nervous and so it’s reassuring the students that that was a very normal feeling,” Bell said. “But they’re ready, our turnout has been great.”

The middle school’s enrollment as of this week was running at 296 students. Out of those, 206 were slated to come on campus for hybrid classes, which equates to about 70% of the school’s population.

“Last week, we had an open house on Tuesday for eighth graders, Wednesday was seventh graders and Thursday was sixth graders,” Bell added. “They got to come into the school building with their parents, pick up their schedule, tour the building.”

Philomath High opened up the building to freshmen on Monday for an orientation. Bussard said there was a really good turnout.

“I was very pleasantly surprised and just by the end of it, I was really ecstatic that so many freshmen” participated, he said.

Twenty-two Associated Student Body students guided freshmen around campus.

“They are tremendous leaders in this school and they’re the ones that really set the culture for our ninth, 10th graders,” Bussard said. “They did a tremendous job.”

Curtis, who is an ASB student, said the day went well.

“There was like a hundred of them — so it was just weird being around a big group of people that kind of seemed a little nervous, a little scared, but it was fun overall,” Curtis said. “We gave them a tour and we had a panel so they could ask us questions.”

Students in both buildings have certain safety protocols that they need to follow. Beyond answering screening questions, wearing masks, practicing social distancing and sanitizing or washing hands, students also need to do things like not sharing supplies and being cognizant of one another in hallways.

Middle school students when arriving at 12:30 can pick up lunch at their entrance and can then eat during their advisory time, which is the first period.

Bell said the middle school teaching staff enters in-person learning at full staff. Some teachers, he added, are staying off campus and instructing students through comprehensive distance learning. As of Tuesday, the number of middle schoolers in CDL learning numbered 90.

PHS brought in a few long-term substitute teachers with master schedule offerings that needed to be adjusted. Bussard said a couple of teachers that opted out this academic year should be returning in the fall.

Two instructional assistants were hired to help with things like manning the doors in the mornings with students coming in and doing wellness checks. They also monitor students during the day, for example, in a reconfigured commons area and in computer labs.

The number of classified staff at the middle school continues to be at full strength and even added employees to assist with various small groups, Bell said.

The school district calendar shows classes continuing until June 11.

“It’s one day at a time, one week at a time,” Bell said.

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