It’s hard enough planning for a new school year, much less one in a brand-new school with new teachers and students.

But to do it all in the middle of a pandemic that has essentially shut down schools since March is something Forest Edge Elementary School principal Kerri Modjeski and her staff have learned to adapt with during a busy summer – much of it without the building.

With the Oregon School District kicking off the 2020-21 school year mostly virtually Sept. 8, it’s going to be an unprecedented start to the school year at Forest Edge. Everything will be different there for the 357 students and around 45 staff members, as they’ll eventually get a chance to navigate all the hallways and rooms in their spacious new school.

Located at 4848 Brassica Road in the City of Fitchburg, east of the U.S. Hwy. 14/Lacy Road interchange, the 130,000-square-foot building will initially be grades K-6, with plans to switch to a K-5 once a planned middle school is in place, likely in the mid-2020s.

Modjeski, who was the principal at Brooklyn Elementary School for nine years before being hired last fall to lead FES, told the Observer last week she’s excited to see families’ addresses starting to show up from the nearby, fast-growing Terravessa development.

“It’s interesting to see it happening live, as the houses are going up,” she said, looking out a large window at Forest Edge facing the development. “We’re seeing the push. They’re signing up and coming to school.”

And starting last week, teachers have been coming to school, too.

Modjeski started working at the new school in the past week after mostly working from home over the summer during construction. Teachers – hired over the past nine months – started moving into their new classrooms last week, as well, on a staggered schedule to allow around seven or eight per day in the building at a time.

It has been challenging to build camaraderie among the new group, as staff still haven’t all met in person, though many of them have participated in virtual group meetings over the past few months. For months, Modjeski had tried to get the staff together, but first snowstorms and then the COVID-19 shutdown prevented in-person gatherings.

With social districting restrictions, teachers have to prepare their unfamiliar setting in a completely different manner from ever before, as most K-4 students start the year virtually while others attend in person one afternoon a week for two hours.

“It’s a whole other situation (now) – it’s how to set up your classrooms in a way that those workstations are separated and keeping surfaces clean,” Modjeski said. “That’s a different mindset for everyone.”

The bizarre situation is mostly shared around the county and in many places around the nation because of COVID-19. It takes some of the excitement out of unveiling a breathtaking building that features several playgrounds, inner courtyards, a school forest and a butterfly garden and is the first ”net zero” school in the state, with solar panels and geothermal features taking in more energy than expending.

It’s also prevented staff from getting to know families the way they had hoped to, leading to alternate plans, such as video introductions on the website of every staff member.

“It‘s complicated to open a new building, but even more so by the fact that it’s in this altered world we’re working in,” Modjeski said.

Building a staff

The search for staff has taken almost a year.

Modjeski was hired last September, and jobs at the new school were posted internally in December, based on predicted enrollment. All district K-6 administrators participated in that round, as all the schools would be affected.

“We wanted to be sure we were having an equally balanced staff – equally skilled and really spread out,” Modjeski said. “So we had a mix of some veterans here at this site who could help the ‘newbies’ along, or the staff that hadn’t been in our district before.”

When it turned out there were a few positions nobody applied for, the district did external postings and picked up around a dozen new teachers and paraprofessionals from around the Midwest. Once the district got a more exact idea over the spring and summer of how many students would be attending, there was a third phase of hiring to fill out the staff.

Interviewing and getting to know candidates was a challenging experience virtually, Modjeski said.

“It got really unusual once we were in closure, how quickly we had to adapt our interview process to have existing staff to be part of that process,” she said. “It’s weird now when I’m meeting the people in ‘real time,’ it’s kind of like we’re meeting people all over again as they’re moving in this week.”

Laying the foundation

Creating camaraderie among the staff and introducing them to the families they’ll be working with has been a challenge, as well.

In June, informal virtual meetings helped staff get to know one another, and in July, groups of around a dozen teachers discussed topics like “Why did you get into education” and “What was the moment you knew you wanted to work with kids?

Modjeski also incorporated virtual trivia to find out fun facts about people as an icebreaker of sorts.

“It’s just a way to figure out who everybody is and keep it light,” she said. “The stress and anxiety of what we are planning for, all the unknowns, is heavy, and it’s important to keep our people laughing together and engaging together.”

And since it might be awhile before the school is fully operational, Modjeski said the key word these days is “flexibility.”

“I keep telling everyone, no matter how school looks in the fall, you still have to find an interesting way to build relationships with kids and families,” she said. “You get that going and kids are going to be more inclined to listen to what you have to say academically.

“They’ve got to know you care first, and you’re invested, and we’re building with a whole new team and a whole new group of kids.”

Email Unified Newspaper Group reporter Scott De Laruelle at scott.delaruelle@wcinet.com.