Third grader entering building
Kylie Blackburn, instructional assistant at Philomath Elementary, gets ready to screen a third grader on Tuesday morning as students headed to in-classroom learning for the first time in 11 months. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Eleven months after last attending school in a physical classroom, the first groups of Philomath students on Tuesday began the transition to hybrid learning. And although a return to in-person learning created a certain level of pandemic-related anxiety, it’s a safe bet that most of the students, teachers and staff were wearing smiles under their face masks.

“It was my favorite first day that I’ve ever had,” Clemens Primary School Principal Abby Couture said. “I’m so excited to see the kids back. Things went incredibly well … the kids were so happy today and having just half of the kids here helped everything go all the more smoother.”

Many of the kindergartners took their first steps into a school for the first time ever and Couture was happy to report no tears. Parents were not allowed to accompany their children into the building.

“On a typical first day, we have a number of students where there would be tears and it’s hard to say goodbye and that did not happen today,” Couture said. “We didn’t have a single student that was upset, they were just happy.”

Philomath Elementary Principal Bryan Traylor welcomed back the first groups of second and third graders.

“It went really well but we’re definitely glad that we only started with two grades today because lots of small adjustments, nothing major,” Traylor said. “It came off well — always adjusting on the fly as you see something doesn’t quite work the way you anticipated but just minor adjustments.”

Both Traylor and Couture sensed a mix of emotions among staff on Day 1.

“Speaking personally and I believe it was the same emotion for the staff — there was a combination of anxiety and excitement,” Traylor said. “I think as we got to about midday, everybody was just really relaxed because (we realized) this is working, it’s working. There’s definitely a sense of positivity in the kids that they were back.”

Couture had similar comments.

“I think for the most part, staff just wants to make sure they’re following the protocols to keep everybody safe,” Couture said. “And because we’re living during a pandemic, there is definitely some anxiety because that’s a lot for us to handle.

“Once the kids walked through the door, the natural instincts just take over,” she added, “and staff was so happy to see the kids and the kids were happy to be here.”

Student climbs off school bus
Philomath Elementary Principal Bryan Traylor points a student in the right direction Tuesday morning after she climbed off a bus. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Known as the “yellow cohort” that attends classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Philomath Elementary welcomes roughly 60 students into the building — split evenly between the second and third grades.

“That will be repeated, essentially similar numbers, tomorrow with the blue cohorts,” Traylor said. “After tomorrow (Wednesday), about 120 second and third graders will have attended school for their first day.”

Second graders entered the building from an entrance at the back and third graders from a door on the west side. The kids were asked typical screening questions, had their body temperature checked and sanitized their hands before entering.

“A lot of structure like that just to keep kids in a more controlled space and at a more controlled pace,” Traylor said.

At CPS, the kindergartners and first graders also had exclusive entrances for getting into the school. Couture estimated the number of students in the building on Tuesday at 75 — and that’s counting a few preschool kids.

Morning buses for both schools were nearly empty for dropping off students — one at CPS and two at the elementary school. But for the ride home, PES students on buses increased to around 15.

Fourth graders will transition into hybrid learning on Tuesday, March 2 with fifth graders following on Thursday, March 4. Staggering the return of those students was planned to avoid issues that might be seen if they all came back at the same time.

Doing the math, the elementary school would have 120 students attending each day.

The elementary school day runs from 8:05 to 2:20 p.m. — a span of 6 hours and 15 minutes. Traylor estimated that they probably see five hours of actual instruction time. Fifty-five minutes are set aside for lunch and recess and he estimated around 30 minutes for time spent on in-building transitions, which involves washing hands or sanitizing.

“There wasn’t a single child that had to be screened out and that’s good news,” Traylor said. “It was all a very deliberate process, nobody making a rush on any of the steps, just making sure everything’s being done well and thoroughly.”

For a first day, it all appeared to run pretty smoothly.

“Afternoon dismissal went pretty efficiently,” Traylor said. “The parents were super cooperative which we really appreciate — everybody stayed in their cars and allowed us to get the kids to them.”

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Heading back to school
The first groups of K-1 students at Clemens Primary and grades 2-3 students at Philomath Elementary got into classrooms on Tuesday. The second cohorts will head to school on Wednesday morning. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)