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Elementary school students return to the classroom with social distancing and safety protocols

COURTESY PHOTO: ESTACADA SCHOOL DISTRICT - Teachers in Estacada have found a variety of ways to ensure that students keep a six foot distance.

After participating in comprehensive distance learning since last fall, Estacada elementary school students have returned to the classroom for hybrid learning.

Kindergarten and first grade students started hybrid learning on Monday, Jan. 25, and second through fifth grade students joined them Monday, Feb. 8.

The majority of elementary school families opted to participate in hybrid learning. Students at River Mill Elementary School and Clackamas River Elementary School have been divided into two cohorts, with about 150 students in each group.

"The first day of hybrid learning was like Christmas and the first day of school all wrapped in one," said Kari Hulsey, a fourth grade teacher at Clackamas River Elementary. "The smiles on the kids' faces, they were so excited."

Hulsey has one group of students in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays and online Wednesdays and Thursdays. A second cohort of students learns online Mondays and Tuesdays and in-person on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Another group of students has opted to continue learning online for all four days, and the hybrid students join this group during their online days.

Maggie Kelly, communications director for the Estacada School District, said that teachers have come up with creative ways to help students follow COVID-19 safety guidelines, including providing neck lanyards for students to attach their masks to while they are eating.

School buildings also have a variety of signs and stickers to help students with social distancing.

Prior to the start of hybrid learning, district leaders also created videos about COVID protocols with student actors.

"We wanted to show families what a school day would look like," Kelly said.

Additionally, the school district has instituted a "Parent Pledge" that families or guardians complete every morning before school, ensuring that their child is not experiencing symptoms of the virus, will wear a face mask and will complete a daily health screening questionnaire honestly.

"There's been really excellent participation," Kelly said. "We count on parent partnership more than ever now to keep our schools open."

Additionally, the district has 300 rapid COVID-19 tests in case students become symptomatic during the school day.

"It's another safety resource," Kelly said, noting that the tests require parent permission.

When surveyed about reopening, many elementary school staff members said they were impressed at how prepared students were to follow social distancing guidelines.

Additionally, when surveyed, 95% of kindergarten and first grade families said they felt that schools were safe and clean.

In terms of constructive feedback, staff said it would be beneficial to have more time in the schedule for specific activities — for example, additional time for bathroom breaks to allow for social distancing and to ensure that everyone washes their hands.

COURTESY PHOTO: ESTACADA SCHOOL DISTRICT - Hand sanitizer is available for students as Estacada schools make the move to hybrid learning.

Engaging students

Hulsey said students are excited to be in the classroom once again.

"The engagement is definitely high," Hulsey said. "So many of them were bummed because of the snow days (this week)."

"It's the next level of excitement with students," Kelly added.

One of Hulsey's in-person learning groups consists of 14 students, and another group is 13 students. The maximum number of students the district allows for in-person learning is 15 students per classroom.

"The in-building teachers are focused on doing a lot more interactive lessons, and things we can't do online," Hulsey said, noting that there's a lot of collaboration between the in-building and online teachers. "There's a lot of communication and daily check-ins with each other."

Hulsey said mask wearing and social distancing have been going smoothly in her classroom.

"We went over every single protocol and talked about what 6 feet looks like and when we can take off our masks," she said. "They didn't complain at all. I'm super proud of the kids."

Kelly said that younger students are also adapting to the changes.

"Especially with kindergarten and first graders, there are a whole host of things they need to learn at the beginning of any school year," she said. "They're learning how to social distance the same way they're learning to tie their shoes or stand in line. They're taking it all in stride."

Hulsey said that she wasn't concerned about returning to the classroom during the pandemic.

"Our district has done such a phenomenal job covering everything that could happen and following the CDC guidelines. I also know that parents are having conversations with their children about social distancing and how to wear masks," she said. "I had no fear (about returning) at all. The district has done an amazing job. Our staff and students are ready to be back in the building."

Hulsey noted that while there are many positive elements to online learning, there's no substitute for being in the classroom alongside students.

"Online learning is awesome, but it can't replace the connections and energy that come with in-person learning. There are little nuances that come with being in the classroom. We can feed off of each other in conversation," she said.

Along with elementary school students, limited hybrid learning will begin at the secondary level on Thursday, Feb. 18. Two cohorts of about 80 students with limited internet access, who had lost their homes in last fall's wildfires or are served by student services will return to each school.

"There's no better place for students to learn to be safe than one with teachers who know the kids and know what it will take to keep them safe," Kelly said.

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