Aiken Elementary principal wants to ease concerns about going back to class

Brandi Bell, left, and Nubia Gonzalez, back right, help check-in students at Aiken Elementary School in Ontario this morning. At the time the tardy bell was getting ready to ring at 9:15 a.m. nearly all the children were checked in, according to Principal Tobey Huddleston.


As students in kindergarten through eighth grade go back to class at Ontario schools today, the leader of one of the elementary schools is seeking to “put hearts at ease.” This is because parents are sending their children back to full-time in-person instruction, after distance learning models have been in place since the start of the 2020-21 school year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Aiken Elementary Principal Tobey Huddleston said that officials have been planning for a return to class since fall, because they knew it would eventually happen despite county metrics. Since the date of return was decided, “we’ve been working away,” she said.

This even included a mock first day of school, which was held on Monday, Huddleston said, and provided an opportunity to “really test out the things we have in place.” For this exercise, the principal and instructional coaches played the roles of teachers and the teachers played the role of students — even standing outside in line after being “dropped off by parents.”

Not only did this allow them to test the systems of entering the school and getting into classrooms, they practiced washing hands. It was then they noticed that the paper towel dispensers get caught up sometimes, so maintenance orders were put in.

The school has always had yellow walking lines on the floors, but those lines now have blue dots that were painted every 7 feet.

“Those requirements say 6 feet, but everything they recommend, we say, we’re going one step further to ensure safety,” she said.

“It’s a really exciting time. I’m excited to have the kids back,” Huddleston said.

The principal said she will have two focuses today, one of which will be more challenging.

“My professional focus today will be ensuring all the hard plans we put into place go smoothly,” Huddleston said. “But my personal challenge today will be not to squeeze every single one of them.”

The students have been greatly missed, she said.

“They are the ‘why’ of what we do and with an empty building of kids, you feel you miss something. We’re getting what we were missing back.”

She noted that distant learning hadn’t taken a major toll on grades, saying that those students who didn’t have issues with logging in and getting online every day were holding steady. It was easy to see that those who were having issues with grades were students who were having issues with the computer or didn’t have someone at home to remind them to log in.

“We were phenomenally able to provide all students with Chromebooks and the district provided internet service,” she said of distant learning.

Although there are still a lot of details to iron out, Huddleston wants to reassure parents and guardians that there has been a lot of planning leading up to today. She wants them to know about the work and give feedback.

Huddleston says she feels confident that safety will be in place and gave credit to Superintendent Nicole Albisu for the work she has done.

“Superintendent Albisu has done a fabulous job of making sure all the schools are in line with strong structure that focuses on the bottom line: the kids.”

Huddleston noted that the school is required to abide by safety mandates established by the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education.

This includes providing 35 square feet per person in classrooms.

When starting to map this out, they discovered all the items that had to be taken into consideration, such as doorways and cabinets. As such, one example Huddleston provided was a 947 square-foot classroom.

The math breaks down to space for 27 people, but with other objects taking up space, they were only able to fit 20.

High school students are slated to return to class a week from today.

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