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Medford teachers welcome students back with hugs, hearts

Smiles, thank-you notes, even belated Valentine's Day parties highlighted Medford teachers' first day back to school after an 11-workday strike ended Friday.

Ninety-nine percent of the Medford School District's teaching staff reported for duty Monday morning, with six substitutes filling in teachers who were out for non-strike-related issues, said Superintendent Phil Long.

Security personnel and substitute teachers hired during the strike checked out Friday when the district saw that a tentative agreement with the Medford Education Association was imminent. The two sides signed the tentative agreement at 10:05 p.m.

District administration and some classified staff worked over the weekend to reorganize classrooms and get teachers their keys and badges on Sunday.

"Sunday went extremely smooth, and everyone was excited to be back," said North Medford High School Principal Ron Beick.

Attendance, which had dropped below 50 percent during the strike, was at 89.8 percent on Monday, Long said.

"We had twice as many happy parents today," he said.

Parents picking up their kids from Jefferson Elementary School were glad their kids were back in class with their regular teachers.

"We love our teachers," said Malanie Sills, who has three children attending Jefferson.

When she dropped off her kids in the morning, Sills said Pharrell Williams' "Happy" was playing over the intercom.

"It was a normal school day," said her fifth-grade son, West. "We did some art and some math.

"My teacher wrote on the board that he missed us," he added.

Sills' other children reported their teachers had made them cookies and hosted a Valentine's Day party since the holiday had been overlooked because of the strike.

"We are happy it's over; that's for sure," Sills said.

During the strike, Jefferson Elementary students were relocated to Hoover Elementary for afternoon classes.

Kerstie Kneeland's second-grade sons, Aiden and Campbell, said they would miss sleeping in and miss Hoover's bigger playground. Kneeland said that although the change taught her boys flexibility, "it felt good to be back."

Pam Bartlett, an office manager at Abraham Lincoln Elementary, was among the classified staff working Sunday when teachers returned.

"It was not awkward in the least bit, not here at our school," she said.

"I got a hug from every teacher that walked in," she added.

During the strike, Bartlett said she worked long hours and "felt emotionally drained."

"It was hard not knowing when it was going to be over and how it was going to play out," she said. "We would hear it was getting close, and then nothing would happen, and we had to come back and do it another day."

Monday morning, Bartlett said she and the 17 other classified staff at Abraham Lincoln received heart-shaped candles and notes signed by all the teachers. The notes read, "Thank you classified staff. Knowing you were keeping ALE strong kept our hearts lit with hope."

Bartlett said she also received a thank-you email from administrators Todd Bloomquist and Julie Evans.

Gerry Flock, principal of Wilson Elementary, said his classified staff brought in treats, flowers and balloons for the returning teachers.

"The teachers reciprocated with a sign that said, 'We appreciate you' and notes and more treats," he said.

Some Wilson teachers hung banners outside their classrooms that read, "Welcome Back," "I missed you," and "Thanks for your patience and support."

Flock said he had expected there to be some awkwardness in the reunion.

"It was warm and inviting, and I didn't sense any animosity of any kind," he said.

At North Medford, Beick held a brief meeting to welcome back teachers and to remind everyone that the focus needed to be on the students and supporting them.

"A lot like the first day of school, you could feel the positive energy," he said. "You could see there was a lot of hugging, and there was the feeling that everything was back to normal."

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_MT.

Malanie Sills picks up her children, from left, Jordan, Irie and West, at Jefferson Elementary School in Medford Monday. Sills said the family is happy the teachers’ strike is over. - Jamie Lusch