Snow blankets the ground in front of Sunset Elementary School in Hermiston on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021.

Hermiston School District’s plan to bring students back to the classroom for in-person learning was thwarted not by COVID-19, but by the weather.

The district had planned to bring kindergarten and first grade students into the classroom on Tuesday, Feb. 16, but ended up canceling school for all students due to the snow.

At first it was uncertain when the weather would permit the youngest grades to start hybrid learning, but Sunset Elementary School Principal Jerad Farley said on Friday his school was ready.

“The staff are just raring to go,” he said. “We’re really excited to see our kids again.”

When students are able to return, they will be divided up into two groups. Group A will learn in person from 7:55-11:05 a.m. and return home for virtual learning and homework in the afternoon. Group B will learn online and work on homework in the morning, and attend in person from 11:55 a.m. to 3:05 p.m.

Farley said the divided schedule will allow schools to keep students in small cohorts of about 10 students, minimizing their chances for exposure to COVID-19 and allowing for the required six feet of space surrounding each students and other safety requirements. Those six feet will be maintained not only in the classroom, but in hallways and outdoors.

“We’ve put visible marks outside and in the building to help with that,” he said.

The district plans to continue adding more grades of students to the hybrid learning schedule, and for many students it will be a return to a familiar setting. But for kindergarteners, it will be their first time learning in a classroom inside their school. Farley said that may be a difficult adjustment for some who have gotten used to having their parents close by, learning from the comfort of their couch or eating snacks whenever they want.

On the other hand, teachers already have some experience with young students coming back to the classroom after the district was allowed to bring back a few students in categories, such as special education or English language learners. Farley said what they have observed in those cases is that the extra few months learning from home from their teacher first helped some students with the transition.

“There was a level of maturity that seems to be contributing to not being as nervous or anxious about the separation from Mom and Dad,” he said.

Some parents in the district have been frustrated with the timeline in bringing students back, as small districts in surrounding areas have started hybrid learning for all grades. Students and parents have held rallies in Hermiston over the past year, including one outside the district offices during a school board meeting on Monday, Feb. 8.

Shane Robinson, one of those parents, noted that even as the district was able to bring some students back for limited in-person instruction, students who on paper are getting good grades may be struggling in other ways.

“People think of school as there’s the writing, reading and arithmetic, but it’s also the socialization of band, drama, things like that,” he said.

Robinson said he believes the teachers have done a great job under the circumstances, and has been pleased with his own children’s teachers. Many parents have been frustrated with the uncertainty and lack of information that has often happened, however.

“I know there are a lot of moving pieces that as a public we don’t always see, but I think one thing that could be done better ... is communication. That’s what parents are asking for,” he said.

He said he appreciated that as the time for hybrid learning approaches, the district has made improvements in communication. He likes the short “Question of the Day” segments the district has been posting to Facebook, for example, but hopes to see more of that and wishes it had been started sooner.

In an open letter to the community, the Hermiston school board stated that bringing kindergarten and first grade students would be a “springboard” to allow other grades to return in the coming weeks.

“We will continue to update you as metrics allow for more students to return and plans continue to evolve,” the letter said.

While Robinson gave credit to teachers for their work through the distance learning phase, at Sunset Elementary, Farley also gave credit to parents, who he said had risen to the occasion “phenomenally” as well.

“I have been so overwhelmingly impressed with parents and how they’ve adjusted to this new normal, so to speak,” he said.

Farley asked parents to continue to be patient and flexible as educators and students alike start on this new phase of hybrid learning.

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