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A first day like no other

It probably wasn’t exactly the first day of school that Lori Higgins had envisioned when she left Flemming Middle School in Merlin following the 2019-20 school year to become the principal of Kennedy Elementary, but there she was Tuesday morning along the rest of the north Medford school’s staff, welcoming students and parents alike to a meet-and-greet like no other.

The cars were bumper-to-bumper down North Keene Way Drive, a minivan traffic jam of sorts, but with waves and smiles instead of honking as kids leaned out of windows to get the first up-close glimpse of their teachers in six months.

And it wouldn’t be 2020 without an unexpected twist, but the ominous smoke plume in the distance from the fire that started in Ashland did not dampen the mood, at least not during the school’s morning “meet-the-teacher parade,” and Higgins was thrilled with the turnout.

“It’s been great,” said Higgins after directing a driver toward the line of teachers that were arranged in a row by grade level in front of the school. “The hard part is, we haven’t had a chance to meet face-to-face other than the webinar, so they’ve seen me that way but I haven’t had a chance to see them.”

She saw plenty of them Tuesday. Similar to other meet-and-greets throughout town, Kennedy’s was arranged like a teacher buffet. Teachers had paper bags stuffed with supplies like text books and dry-erase boards at the ready to hand out to students. At the end of the line, next to Kennedy’s main parking lot, two staffers held up a red, white and blue cardboard rectangle that served as a makeshift photo box. The words “first day of school” were etched on the borders for the improvised picture day, in case the standard option never happens.

First-grade teacher Rashanna Edwards said it was a thrill to finally see students half a year after the COVID-19 shutdown last spring brought an end to in-school learning. She remembers the exact date she last saw students face-to-face: March 13, she said.

“For a teacher, it’s kind of like winning the lottery,” she said. “It’s so exciting. I get a little teary and a little excited. I’m really tired but I feel like I could do cartwheels.

“Lots of teeth that have been lost, and haircuts, and their faces are changing. It’s just fun to see them light up when they see you.”

Edwards just met a dad whose older children had already come through her class. Now, the youngest in the family is about to enter her class and she can’t wait.

The students seem a little apprehensive at first, she said, but that tends to go away once she makes eye contact.

“You can see them coming up and they look a little like they’re worried maybe,” she said. “And then when they see a familiar face, it’s like a wild wave. ... It’s like, ‘Oh, hey!’”

Angel Fox moved to Medford from Phoenix not long before the pandemic took hold. With a fourth-grader and a kindergartner excited to start school, Fox said she and her kids love Kennedy but admitted that adjusting to the new normal may take some time.

“It has just been so new and so different,” she said. “We’re trying to be really positive and the school’s been pretty organized. Just trying to figure out a good way to get everyone on the same path.

“It is overwhelming. I’m not as fun as a kindergartner teacher, or the whole class and everything. I really just want the same for my daughter as all the other kindergarten years — the field trips and everything that they do.”

To help make up the difference, Fox bought a bike. The stay-at-home mom plans to set up her kids in different rooms so they’re not distracted, but knows the age gap could be challenging.

“I want to be able to take them both places and be able to have some time out, like a field trip, but they’re in such different stages,” she said. “Just finding a balance for our family I think is going to be the biggest challenge. Making sure I can keep an eye on both of them at the same time.”

Fox’s kindergartner will have at least one leg up on her older brother, since Kennedy’s youngest students were able to meet in small groups of 10 or less Tuesday, Higgins said.

As far as Medford School District’s new remote learning system, communications and public relations specialist Natalie Hurd said there were “some struggles,” and a few victories, too. Hurd’s own daughter experienced one of the downsides to online learning when Zoom crashed three times. Most other teachers reported no such issues, Hurd said, although power outages swept through parts of Medford and some parents are still figuring out the district’s platform of choice, Canvas (Fox, for one, believes Canvas is a huge upgrade over last year’s remote learning options).

Hurd said the district expected some bumps in the road and has planned accordingly.

“We’ve been referring to this whole week as a gentle start because we know that we implemented a lot of technology this summer, and it took our team time to get it loaded and figured out,” she said.

“I think we’ve had some struggles today but we’ve also had some amazing moments and some really successful first-day experiences. Technology is one of those things where it’ll just go wrong in certain places and then we have to troubleshoot, and so our help desk has been working super hard on things.”

For parents pulling out their hair, wondering how this is all going to work if cracks in the system are already showing, Hurd points to the learning curve.

“We’re going to spend this week just sort of working through things,” she said. “A lot of parents are still trying to make sure that they have what they need. Our whole message for them is, don’t panic, we know that this is a lot and we are giving everybody grace this week to get it all figured out.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Aubrey Lumsden, 8, has her photo taken Tuesday while attending the meet your teacher event at Kennedy Middle School. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune