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Youngest learners have a day

The Medford School District opened its doors for a full day of in-person instruction for the first time in nearly a year Monday as kindergartners and first-graders put aside their laptops, dug out their facemasks and headed to one of the district’s elementary schools to kick off the first stage of Medford’s four-stage in-person rollout.

Second- and third-graders will return Thursday, fourth- through sixth-graders will begin a hybrid schedule March 1, and middle- and high-schoolers will do the same March 29, although orientations will begin for each of those cohorts the week prior.

Kindergartners through third-graders will have access to the most robust in-person schedule the district will offer — 7:50 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. four days a week, with Wednesdays set aside for a minimum of two hours of remote learning via Zoom and independent activities. Ruch Elementary students will be attending from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., four days a week.

Natalie Hurd, the district’s communications coordinator, said the first full day after months of limited in-person instruction (LIPI) went off without a hitch.

“It’s gone really smoothly from what we heard,” Hurd said about an hour after the final bell sounded at most of Medford’s schools. “(Superintendent Bret Champion) was actually out at a bunch of elementary schools this morning — he’s been to all 14 now between last week and this week. ... Obviously, we’re monitoring the district’s phones and emails, and it’s been pretty quiet, which is good. It means that kids are in class and doing their thing and teachers are teaching.”

Brie Olsen, a kindergarten teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary, said Monday’s full-day schedule was a big step up from LIPI, which was limited to two hours per day, five days a week since it was implemented back in October. Families within the Medford School District uncomfortable attending schools in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic could choose to transfer to the Medford Online Academy, but Olsen said all 18 of her students were in class Monday.

“It was kind of a flood of different emotions,” Olsen said. “It was weird because I just felt so connected to this group and yet I felt like it was the first day of school in a lot of ways.”

Olsen said getting about five more hours of in-person time with her students than what was offered via LIPI was a big help. It was also the norm at Lincoln. According to Olsen, only two students out of the school’s three kindergarten classes opted to transfer to Medford Online Academy.

“I was just so excited to have the extended amount of time because I love to sing, and I love to do sign language, phonics games,” she said. “It just gives me more time to insert all of those fun things that bring learning alive. So I’m really thankful to have more time than I had prior.”

Some classrooms in the district will need to be divided, with half being placed in alternate spaces like conference rooms to adhere to state guidance regarding social distancing and cohort sizes. Olsen’s room is big enough to fit up to 20 students, however, so her entire class sat in a room together Monday for the first time since last March.

The precise spacing between each desk was labeled with orange markers, and Olsen said part of the challenge is finding ways to best use the space available while also keeping their distance from one another.

“So for me,” she said, “it’s just kind of restructuring the way we do school and education. I’m a mom, so obviously keeping kids healthy and safe is my No. 1 priority, and that totally makes sense to me, so that’s going to slow things down a little bit. ... It’s like, how can we get it to be exciting and fun and how do we utilize the tools that they can have at their desks or in their hand? Maybe they can be on their stomachs underneath their desks writing. You know, just trying to make it fun so they’re not sitting in their little desks all day.”

Overall, she said, the day was a success, albeit with a range of emotions. In fact, part of Olsen’s message early in the day centered around that. It’s normal to experience several emotions simultaneously, she told them.

“Overwhelmingly,” Olsen said, “they were feeling really, really excited to be here.”

Based on countless exchanges of emails and messages, Olsen said her students’ parents were also on board.

“I’ve just have had an outpouring of support and kindness from my parents, and I’m so thankful I’ve had very little frustration besides the Zoom learning,” Olsen said.

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

Teacher Kristen Robinson reads a book to a kindergarten class at Kennedy Elementary in Medford in January. Mail Tribune/file photo