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Grades K-3 returned to Prineville's three elementary schools as kids experienced a day focused on masks, social distancing, and happy reunions with peers and teachers

JASON CHANEY - Kerry Lysne's third grade class at Barnes Butte Elementary participates in a lesson last Tuesday.

First days of school are nothing new to much of the Crook County School District's elementary staff and students.

But last Tuesday was not your ordinary first day of school, and teachers and children alike forged ahead into a new normal as K-3 students walked through school doors for the first time in nearly six months.

And with the status of in-person education still fragile and the COVID pandemic still unpredictable as ever, school leaders are opening with an abundance of caution.

"We have a lot of different safety protocols in place," said Crooked River Elementary Principal Kimberly Bonner. These include keeping students 6 feet apart as much as possible, requiring kids and staff to wear masks or face shields and having students apply hand sanitizer whenever they enter or exit a classroom. Social distance markers have been placed in hallways and classrooms, and playground equipment and desks are sanitized on a regular basis.

Taylor Trautman, the principal at Barnes Butte Elementary, added that new safety procedures help track where students have been in the building and what they might have touched. "We always know where your student is from when they enter the day and they end the day, but (in the past) I probably couldn't tell you a clear pathway of all the touchpoints they hit along the way."

Now they can.

"I can really tell you your student went to the cafeteria at this time, they got to class at this time. They went to this zone for recess, they had this special," Trautman said. "I think that really leads to safety as a whole."

On day one, things went well and students at each of the elementary schools showed a willingness to follow the new procedures and adapt. But it wasn't perfect.

"When the students return, it's easy to see that distancing is not a habit for kids," said Steins Pillar Elementary Principal Jim Bates, "and even despite our best planning, the first day we had to spend huge amounts of time just beginning the process of communicating to students about what our new operational guidelines will be."

But overall, all three principals agreed that the first day of school went as good or even better than expected. Staff and students shared a heightened enthusiasm about being together again and enjoying in-person education, which has suddenly become a bit of a novelty.

"It went really smooth. We were so impressed with the students," Bonner said. "The kids were engaged, they were learning. I even tried (during classroom visits) to make conversation with kids and they just wanted to get back to work. It was so great."

"Kids are resilient," Trautman added. "They really just showed their ability to adapt to all situations. I think it is definitely more challenging for adults because we have this mindset of how things are supposed to be and how learning is supposed to occur."

And students seemed more excited than usual to finally see their classmates again.

"You could just sense that in the air," Bates said. "The joy on their faces, the overwhelming gratitude as well as eagerness on families' parts to have students come back was just visible."

At Crooked River Elementary, Bonner noticed that the students were a bit quiet at first – as if they were absorbing the enormity of the moment.

"It was like school was brand new all over again," she said.

Meanwhile, Trautman noticed that the restrictions on physical contact and having to wear masks changed how students showed affection for their peers and teachers. Masks hid smiles and hugs were not allowed.

"That translated to students using a lot more of their language skills and their vocabulary to express how happy they are," she said.

Staff at the schools shared in that enthusiasm. After six months away from students, they were ready to invite them back to the buildings.

"Man, I am just so thrilled to be here with the kids and bring the educational rhythm back to the kids and families," Bates said. "They need it. They deserve it."

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