Teachers welcome initial groups of Gresham-Barlow, Centennial students back to classrooms

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Emily Woolworth's first group of kindergartners settles in Thursday, April 1, at Hogan Cedars Elementary School in the Gresham-Barlow School District. The desks are spaced for safety and the 'loft' is off limits during the pandemic.

Some of East Multnomah County's smallest scholars got their very first look inside their classrooms Thursday, April 1, as some kindergartners through sixth graders headed back to schoolhouses in the Centennial and Gresham-Barlow school districts after a year of learning at home during the pandemic.

Local kindergartners started their school careers with remote learning in the fall and had never met their teacher or classmates in person or seen the colorful rooms their teachers set up for them.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - This Hogan Cedars student is starting his first day in the classroom with a construction project.

This sunny "first" day of school was not the usual first day, which is full of manic energy and bustling hallways. For the "first" day back during the pandemic, masked students stood 6 feet apart, entered through designated doors and there was only a fraction of the class in each occupied classroom.

The students mostly followed the rules, but one youngster at Hogan Cedars Elementary School, overcome with the joy of seeing his teacher in person, flew in for a now-forbidden hug. She happily embraced the student, but gently reminded the pupil that only "air hugs" are allowed now.

COURTESY PHOTO: CENTENNIAL SCHOOL DISTRICT - A staff member at Powell Butte Elementary School in the Centennial School District gives a student a dollop of hand sanitizer to start her 'first' day of school.

"We are thrilled to have our kindergartners and first graders come back today," said Hogan Cedars Principal Elaine Luckenbaugh.

"Today is a lot about reconnecting socially and emotionally," she said.

Parents could not come into the school with their kids, but Luckenbaugh had all the teachers outside in designated gathering spots so parents and students could see their teacher's faces and connect before the students went to their classrooms.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - A Hogan Cedars student gets one last word of encouragement from mom before she heads into the classroom.

Savannah Ulloa, mom of kindergartner Lucciano, said "I'm excited for him. He definitely needs it."

A dad of another kindergartner said "he's been super excited. I am too. He doesn't do well online. His first grade brother does better. Merrick is excited, but he doesn't know what to expect."

Hogan Cedars kindergarten teacher Emily Woolworth had carefully planned her students' first time in the schoolhouse and started them with some individual boxes of manipulative toys to ease into that first afternoon of in-person learning. She had six students, about one-third of her class, in the classroom for the "first" session at noon Thursday. One-third of her students would be coming in the next group, or cohort, and about one-third opted to remain with remote learning.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Centennial Superintendent Paul Coakley spends some time with students at Powell Butte Elementary School before they head into class.

"We are excited for them to experience in-person school and the magic of in-person learning," she said.

"It will be a nice small group and a nice way of easing into the school setting," she added.

Schools have strict safety protocols in place. There are directional and distancing stickers on the floor, hand sanitizing stations and desks are spread out. Air quality improvements have been made and plexiglass partitions put up in offices and other places.

Students are coming back in what is called a hybrid model. They will study in classrooms part time and the rest of the time learn remotely, as they have been doing since March 2020.

Rules about social distancing had meant that a third to half the student body could be in a school building at once. And, although the distancing rules were relaxed March 22, some school districts, reeling from frequent changes in reopening guidelines, decided to stick to the opening plans they had in place and not change the distancing formula.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Hogan Cedars had a helpful reminder of what 6 feet looks like in the school's main hall.

The East County school districts are on different schedules for bringing students back in classrooms.

The youngest pupils were the first in the schoolhouse door. They will be followed, in order of grade level, by the older students until high schoolers are in classrooms in all schools by May. Most students are in classrooms only a few hours per day for a few days per week, and they continue to learn remotely the rest of the time.

Reynolds School District elementary school students will have their first day back in classrooms the week of April 5.

The Corbett School District brought its first students back March 10, the first district in Multnomah County to do so.

Gresham-Barlow welcomed back about 400 students Thursday. Superintendent Katrise Perera was on hand at Hogan Cedars and greeted the little ones, and noted how well organized the school was.

"I'm excited for the kids to come back to the place they learn best, in the classroom, with Oregon's best teachers," she said.

You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.