Thursday's return to school is a watershed moment for the Hillsboro School District.

COURTESY PHOTO: HILLSBORO SCHOOL DISTRICT - A family checks in at a table set up outside Orenco Elementary School for the first day of classes Thursday, Sept. 9.Thursday, Sept. 9, marks the first day of school in the Hillsboro School District — and a long-anticipated return to some semblance of normalcy.

School doesn't quite look the way it used to, although it runs much as it did before the coronavirus pandemic shut down classrooms after spring break in 2020. Students will attend five days per week and have normal school days, with in-person classes, lunch and recess.

However, due to the ongoing threat of the virus, and under statewide emergency orders put in place by Gov. Kate Brown, students and staff are required to wear masks at school, desks are spaced out, and school employees who haven't yet gotten vaccinated against COVID-19 will need to present proof they have received their shots by mid-October.

COURTESY PHOTO: HILLSBORO SCHOOL DISTRICT - Students sit in a table group at Minter Bridge Elementary School on Thursday, Sept. 9.

Despite it all, kids and teachers alike are happy to be back in school, said Kasia Gutierrez, who is principal of Jackson Elementary School in Hillsboro.

"I'm not shocked, because we've got some pretty awesome staff members here, but man, these kids are having a blast," Gutierrez said Thursday morning.

Gutierrez is part of a text message chain with other elementary schools that feed into Glencoe High School, which serves northwest Hillsboro and North Plains.

"We definitely have been checking in with each other and just trying to give each other encouragement," said Gutierrez, adding that what makes it worthwhile is seeing how excited students are to be back.

"The energy in schools is amazing," said Mike Scott, superintendent of the Hillsboro School District, in a statement Thursday afternoon. "The students are excited to have everyone back in person, and so is our staff."

COURTESY PHOTO: HILLSBORO SCHOOL DISTRICT - Students at Hillsboro High School pose for a photo together on the first day of classes Thursday, Sept. 9.

Making connections

While the neighboring Beaverton and Forest Grove school districts welcomed students back on Wednesday, Sept. 7, Hillsboro schools are starting the 2021-22 school year with just two days on before the weekend.

Gutierrez said at Jackson Elementary, staff are focused on using that time to build connections.

That includes connections with students, most of whom haven't been in a full-time, in-person school setting in well over a year and a half and some of whom, if they are in kindergarten or the first grade, have never been.

It also includes connections with co-workers, as many teachers worked remotely or had staggered class schedules during the "hybrid" fourth quarter of school this past spring, when Hillsboro mixed a few hours of in-person instructional time every week with online lessons. Two teachers in Gutierrez's building, she said, are brand-new this year as well.

"It is really, really focused on social-emotional learning," Gutierrez said of the first two days of school at Jackson Elementary this week. She referred to this year's theme, "You Belong Here," emblazoned on shirts each staff member wore on the first day of school Thursday. "It's about getting to know each other, really."

She added, "It's kind of nice to do that and really focus on that the first two days of school. … That doesn't stop after a couple days, but that's what we're really hitting this week — connection, belonging."

COURTESY PHOTO: HILLSBORO SCHOOL DISTRICT - Principal Martha Rodriguez Siordia visits with a young student at Minter Bridge Elementary School in Hillsboro on the first day of school, Thursday, Sept. 9.

School staff face another challenge: They have to figure out what level each student is at, after the 2019-20 school year was effectively cut short by the pandemic and, picking up where the last few months of the 2019-20 school year left off, the 2020-21 school year was conducted mostly online. Some students took to comprehensive distance learning very well. Others struggled and may be lagging their peers, as Gutierrez noted.

After using their time in the early going to build a rapport with students, Gutierrez said, teachers will be better able to assess each student and get a sense of their needs.

The Hillsboro School District emphasizes what it calls WIN, short for "what I need," time for students who need extra support or instruction, which can occur individually or in small groups.

For that approach to work, however, schools need to conduct those assessments before they get very far into the school year.

"We don't know yet what we don't know," Gutierrez said.COURTESY PHOTO: HILLSBORO SCHOOL DISTRICT - Witch Hazel Elementary School in Hillsboro rolled out the red carpet for arriving students on the first day of classes Thursday, Sept. 9.

Health and safety

Mask compliance has not been an issue at all at Jackson Elementary, Gutierrez told the News-Times. The school has adapted amid the pandemic, she said, with hand sanitizer stations installed throughout the building, tape markings to keep students the requisite 3 feet apart, and lunch periods in a covered area outdoors for better airflow. There is a new arrival procedure, with staff directing students around the outside of the building to their classrooms instead of having a single entry point.

Staff are also required to show proof they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18.

District spokesperson Beth Graser said Hillsboro doesn't yet have data on how many of its school employees have been vaccinated against COVID-19, but it is working on building a system to track vaccination status.

The school district will work with Washington County Public Health, as well as school families, to track COVID-19 cases and exposures in schools, make notifications and conduct contact tracing as needed, Graser said.

COURTESY PHOTO: HILLSBORO SCHOOL DISTRICT - Marika Hartfeil teaches the first grade at Minter Bridge Elementary School in Hillsboro. Thursday, Sept. 9, was the first day of school in the Hillsboro School District.

Like other school districts in Washington County and throughout Oregon, Hillsboro schools urge parents to keep kids home when they don't feel well.

"Families should evaluate their child's health each morning using the COVID flowchart and Too Sick for School? flyers; and should also have a plan for what they will do if their child has to quarantine at home as a result of either their own diagnosis, exposure, or multiple cases in a classroom/school," Graser told the News-Times in an email. (The rubric is also available in Spanish.)

Community members should also follow public health guidance, including mask-wearing in public, physical distancing with people outside their household, regular handwashing and sanitizing, covering coughs and sneezes, and avoiding contact with people who are sick.

School officials hope that if people adhere to that guidance and follow school rules, COVID-19 won't cause major disruptions to the school year.

"We take very seriously our responsibility to provide safe learning environments that allow students to attend every day, and look forward to a positive year in which we engage our students, build positive relationships, and focus on their social, emotional and academic needs," Scott said.

COURTESY PHOTO: HILLSBORO SCHOOL DISTRICT - Students hang out in the hallway at Century High School on their first day back Thursday, Sept. 9.

The Hillsboro School District is the second-largest K-12 district in Washington County, with four neighborhood high schools, five middle schools — including Groner K-8 School — and 25 dedicated elementary schools, including Jackson Elementary.

The district's newest school, Atfalati Ridge Elementary School in North Plains, was just dedicated last week and welcomed its first students this week.

"Not only is it important for our students to be on campus for face-to-face learning, it's really important for the adults as well," said Atfalati Ridge Elementary principal Dani Johnson at last week's dedication.

The 2021-22 school year in Hillsboro is set to run through June 16, 2022, although it could be extended as late as June 21 if multiple days of school are canceled due to inclement weather.

Not including weekends, Hillsboro schools will observe Thanksgiving break from Nov. 22-26, a two-week winter break from Dec. 20-31, and spring break from March 21-25.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from the Hillsboro School District superintendent, as well as to correct a typographic error in one reference to the first day of school, which was Thursday, Sept. 9. Max Egener contributed to this report.

COURTESY PHOTO: HILLSBORO SCHOOL DISTRICT - A crossing guard welcomes arriving families back to L.C. Tobias Elementary School in Aloha on Thursday, Sept. 9.

By Mark Miller
Editor-in-Chief, Washington and Columbia counties
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