It was a big day for Hermiston School District’s youngest students as kindergarteners and first graders spent a day in person with their teacher for the first time on Wednesday, Feb. 17.

“I want to come back every single day,” first grader Fabian Aguilar said.

He and his brother Damian, also a first grader, were among the dozens of children greeted by a parent as they trickled out of Sunset Elementary School after a morning of learning inside. The afternoon shift of students would arrive about an hour later, after classrooms were sanitized.

Fabian said his favorite part of his first day was the math.

“You have to draw something and tell your partner,” he said.

Damien said his favorite part was getting to dance for a few minutes. Both boys said they liked learning in person better than on the computer.

Brighton Tompos, wearing a mask with dinosaurs on it under his glasses, also said he liked being with his teacher in person better than over video. He said he had fun, and learned about math and other subjects.

“My favorite was when we read a story,” he said.

First grade students got part of their school year in person last year before the pandemic canceled classes in March 2020. But for many kindergarteners, it was their first time in a classroom. Sunset Elementary kindergartener Delilah Jaimes said she had fun on her first day, talking quickly as she ran down a list of things she had fun doing.

“We were reading a funny story about a monkey,” she said before launching into a description of the plot.

Hermiston School District plans to bring more students back to the classroom with an expansion of hybrid learning to all elementary school students in early March.

In light of the “continued decline” of COVID-19 cases in the Hermiston ZIP code, the district reported in a news release, elementary schools are planning for second and third graders to return to the classroom part time on March 1 and fourth and fifth graders on March 8.

Like the youngest grades, those that return in March will be split into two cohorts.

Group A will attend on-site for three hours in the mornings, and Group B in the afternoon, with those not on-site learning online while the other group is in the classroom. On Fridays, students will learn from home all day with “full class comprehensive distance learning” via video in the afternoons.

In a statement, Superintendent Tricia Mooney said the district tracks the Hermiston ZIP code’s COVID-19 cases and calculates a rolling two-week number each Thursday as it works on reopening classrooms.

While Gov. Kate Brown announced in December 2020 that the Oregon Health Authority’s guidance on when schools can reopen was no longer mandatory, school districts reported they had learned that the liability protections granted by the state protecting schools from lawsuits over COVID-19 outbreaks would only be applicable if they followed those rules.

For Hermiston School District, that means keeping cases in the city’s ZIP code down to less than 88 cases reported over 14 days to offer hybrid learning at the elementary school level.

“Thank you for doing your part for our students and community to help bring our case counts down,” Mooney said.

Hermiston School District now displays COVID-19 case counts relative to Oregon Health Authority’s guidance on its website, where parents can track progress.

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