Vale Elementary School Principal Theresa Meiwald scans an arriving student's forehead to take her temperature before she is allowed into the building. (Liliana Frankel/Entereprise)

VALE – Drop off of students at Vale Elementary School on Tuesday felt almost like any other first day of school, with excited teachers welcoming children back by name, parents reluctantly letting go of clutched hands, and students bustling with nervous energy.

But for this first full day of class after 10 months of Covid-related interruptions, there was no August sun, only street lamps to cut through the early-morning darkness. 

School staff stood stationed at different points around the school’s perimeter, scanning student’s foreheads for a temperature check as they filtered in. 

It was the first day in over 300 days that buses transported students to school for a full day, according to a post on Vale Elementary's Facebook page.

The return of Vale students – 820 are enrolled districtwide – to a full day of class followed about four months of optional limited in-person instruction, during which they attended class for only two hours a day. Prior to that, the district was fully virtual. 

Students whose families weren’t comfortable returning to school were given the opportunity to enroll in the Oregon Trail Learning Academy, an online alternative instructional model. The district reported 39 students are currently enrolled. 

“Personally I’m super excited to return to school as it brings back the opportunity for kids to have motivation and gives a safe place for kids who need it,” said Vicente Arteaga, Vale High School class president. “Lots of us seniors kind of lost hope for a regular year and while it isn’t the year we anticipated, we have to make the best out of it.”

Among the measures being implemented to ensure students’ safety during the pandemic are cohorting and block scheduling, which limit high school students to two classes a day with no more than 20 classmates. 

“Here in the high school the biggest challenge might be only having two classes,” said Arteaga. “That’s a long time for us to remain in a classroom and kids might check out.”

Normally, high school students have eight periods in a day. 

Becky Hawkins, fifth grade teacher at Vale Elementary, shared Arteaga’s concern about students’ concentration. 

“I think kids will need a few more breaks,” she said. “They will need lots of review and practice as we move forward with the curriculum.”

Still, she said, “I am not nervous at all. I am just so happy to allow kids an opportunity for a more normal and effective education and to provide them more social interaction with their peers.”

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at liliana@malheurenterprise.com or 267-981-5577.

SUPPORT OUR VITAL LOCAL WORK: We provide Malheur County the local journalism that searches out the facts for you. SUBSCRIBE FOR $5/month. Click HERE.