About 68 percent of Medford School District students showed up Tuesday, the first day of class since teachers went on strike Feb. 6, and many reported that it did not go well.
"It was a disaster," said North Medford High School senior Gerardo Rodriguez. He estimated some classes had as many as 60 students, resulting in an impromptu walkout by the seniors.
"People were sent into the common area, sent to the gym, the library," the 17-year-old said. "We were told to work on our projects, but there's not really anything to work on. Our papers were due a month and a half ago, and everyone's project is outside the school."
North Medford senior Megan Hyland agreed, saying the decrease in instructors and increase in class size made it difficult to structure the day.
"It was more we were just there hanging out," Hyland said. "There wasn't anything really for us to work on. I could have done just as much at my house."
Superintendent Phil Long would not confirm there was a walkout at North Medford but said he did see students leave after the morning assembly.
"I do know there are some things that didn't go quite right today, and our teams are meeting (Tuesday) evening to make adjustments," Long said Tuesday afternoon. "I think it's remarkable when I look at the work our administrators have done and our support staff to plan for a first day of school on the fly."
After closing schools for three days to make strike preparations, the district reopened them Tuesday using about 200 substitute teachers, 300 classified staff and administrative personnel to fill the hole left by striking teachers. Class days were shortened to four hours, and schools were combined.
Attendance ranged from 87 percent at Ruch Elementary to 51 percent at Jacksonville and Abraham Lincoln, according to district numbers. February 2013 saw a daily absentee rate of 12 percent, district officials said.
Long said classes had as many as 45 students in them, but some students reported much larger class sizes. The Medford Education Association in a press release said, "Fire marshals had to be called to address overcrowding in classrooms."
Medford Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief Brian Fish confirmed late Tuesday that a fire investigator had been sent to several of the schools, but he didn't know what prompted the visits or which schools had problems.
"They found some of the class populations to be a little larger than they would have liked for the rooms that they were in ... they were over the occupancy load," Fish said. "No big concern, no citations were issued."
"When he found an issue he just helped educate the people at the school," Fish said.
Long said he expects more students will attend school districtwide today.
Students arriving at their schools Tuesday morning waved at their teachers or hugged them on the picket line.
Oak Grove Elementary teachers watched as their students entered Howard Elementary without them. Several described the situation as "sad," "heartbreaking" and "gut-wrenching."
"You can't have quality education, when quality education is walking the sidewalk," said Oak Grove fifth-grade teacher Cindy Woodard.
Several parents said they showed up at Oak Grove Tuesday morning expecting their kids to catch a bus to Howard and were told they would need to find transportation for their kids.
"I feel terrible," said Angela Carson, parent of a second-grader. "My son is 8 and he doesn't want to go to school.
"I hope they get over this and get things figured out," she said.
Pat Roberston, a manager at First Student bus service, said five or six buses were available to transport students from Oak Grove to Howard around 7:20 a.m. She said parents most likely missed these buses.
Oak Grove Principal Jeanne Grazioli said there would be only one bus today. A bus schedule is available on the district website.
Jack Mitchell, who was dropping off fourth-grader Tucker, said it was going to be Tucker's first day at Oak Grove. He'd been transferred from Wilson after the family moved recently.
"It's a messed-up deal for parents and kids," he said, later describing the situation as "mass confusion."
Another parent, Sarah Sweet, said she was able to get her first-grader, who attended Howard, enrolled at VIBES Charter School but there was no room for her third- and fifth-graders, whom she's keeping home.
She said she was worried about safety and that it was too difficult to coordinate transportation and day care for her children during the teachers' strike, and that her kids "wouldn't learn much."
"One of our kids isn't doing well in school. If we sent him, he would just mess around anyway," she said.
Hoover Elementary fifth-grader Carson Cota had just started learning about the circulatory system in school when the teachers went on strike.
The 11-year-old class vice president said he's already eager for his regular teacher to come back.
"I don't think it's good," Carson said of the strike. "My teacher doesn't like it, so I don't really like it, either."
Outside on the picket lines, some striking teachers said the idea of a substitute leading their students was a concern. As students showed up to school by bus, foot or parental drop-off, the worry was fresh in their minds.
"It is difficult," said Jason Bingham, third-grade teacher at Hoover. "This is our family. ... We work with these kids every day, and we know their needs. The substitutes coming in don't. They don't know the family backgrounds and difficulties they could possibly be going through."
Bingham added the number of students under a substitute was also concerning.
"They're going to be clumping classrooms together, probably one teacher for an entire grade level, and that's difficult knowing that the longer we're out here, because the district's not moving on their position, our kids are in there not getting the quality education that we can provide."
Teachers said they are eager to get contract sticking points such as preparation time, pay and special education caseloads resolved so they can get back to the front of the classroom.
"We want parents to know that the quality education is standing out here on the curb," second-grade Jefferson Elementary teacher DeAnn Bennett said. "We want them to contact the School Board, get this settled, so we can get back in the room with our kids."
Superintendent Long promised district officials would work to iron out problems. About 150 of the district's 300 classified employees have agreed to work extended hours for the duration of the strike to ensure students see friendly faces all day long.
"We actually have started to put into place longer-term planning that we need to do to retain guest teachers," Long said. "Ideally, we would resolve this this week, but we are prepared to go ahead through next week and then we'll see where things are."
A state mediator met briefly with district and union leaders Tuesday for a status update. Contract negotiations will resume at 9:30 a.m. today at an undisclosed location.
"We're just hoping that the community is watching and as they hear Dr. Long say 'quality education,' and they see something else, that they are asking themselves what's really happening at the bargaining table," said MEA Vice President Dan Jones, who is also a fourth-grade teacher.
"Today was, I would say, a debacle," Jones said. "The quality educators are sitting on the sidewalks and we want to be back in the classrooms."