As the country faces unprecedented challenges, local institutions are forging ahead the best they can.

On Monday night, the Oregon Department of Education announced what many Oregonians already suspected: There is a good chance that students are not going to be returning to a physical classroom for the rest of the school year.

State superintendent Colt Gill sent superintendents across the state a 30-page packet of information meant to help guide districts regarding a “Distance Learning for All” effort statewide to set up each child in the state to continue their education outside a brick and mortar classroom.

“Of course, education without face-to-face interaction between students and teachers will look and feel different and cannot be fully replicated across a distance,” he wrote. “It will not and cannot happen overnight. We need the grace and patience of our state’s leaders, our communities, our families, and our educators as we learn together to move powerfully to ensure care, connection, and continuity of learning happen in entirely new ways for our students.”

Hermiston School District was already moving in that direction Monday afternoon. The district checked out about 510 Chromebooks to students who needed electronic devices to access distance learning opportunities. In a letter to parents, Superintendent Tricia Mooney said that the devices are only half the battle — the district must now work with internet providers to find a way to provide internet access to students who don’t currently have it at home.

The district is also handing out paper packets of learning materials as staff hand out lunches every day on buses that stop around town. Mooney said quickly building a district-wide distance learning program from scratch will not be easy, but the district is committed to offering all students the best education possible under the circumstances.

“It will not be perfect; while every effort is being made to provide a rich learning opportunity to our students, we also recognize that remote, at-home learning does not replace the experience of a student engaging with the teacher and their peers in the classroom,” she said. “We will do our best to create a thoughtful and meaningful experience for our students.”

The district announced Tuesday that the “overwhelming demand” they saw Monday had prompted them to offer a second checkout opportunity on Thursday, from 3-7 p.m. at the district offices, 305 S.W. 11th St. Those driving to pick up devices should wait in their vehicle for someone to approach, and those walking should wait in line six feet apart outside the building.

Mental health

As everyone scrambles to make as many services as possible available online, Lifeways is no exception.

The community mental health provider is offering appointments via telephone and telehealth technology, to make sure people can still talk to a therapist or receive other mental health services even if they are sick or isolating themselves at home. As an “essential service,” Lifeways staff also continue to provide services in residential and hospital settings, emergency rooms, out in the community and in their offices.

“At the same time, we are following CDC and Public Health guidance on social distancing, health monitoring, cleaning and (personal protective equipment) use,” Chief Operating Officer Liz Johnson wrote in an email.

She said they have “garnered strength” from increased support and communication from their community partners, and are conducting an organizational-wide effort to monitor the situation daily and continue to make adjustments to meet demand.

Lifeways has also introduced a support line that people can call to relieve feelings of loneliness and isolation during this time when many people can’t physically visit friends and family. That support line is 541-567-2536 for Hermiston-area residents.

Lifeways also has a 24-hour crisis line at 541-240-8030 and a less urgent “warm” line at 1-800-698-2392.

Information about crisis services can also be found online at

Law enforcement

Logs of calls to 911 in the past week show numerous citizens checking in with police to see what they can or cannot do under the governor’s executive order.

Amid the confusion, local law enforcement is emphasizing education over citations and fines for violating the order.

“When it comes to enforcing the ‘stay home, stay safe’ mantra, the plan is just to educate the public without taking any law enforcement action,” Umatilla County Sheriff Terry Rowan said on Wednesday.

That plan was echoed by Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts and Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston, and aligns with strategies of other sheriff’s offices and police departments around the state.

Though local law enforcement doesn’t intend to strictly enforce the order, residents throughout Umatilla County were flooding dispatchers on Tuesday with concerns about whether they or others were at risk of violating it.

“It was obvious people don’t understand the order by how they were inundating 911 with questions and suggestions about it,” Roberts said.

In Hermiston, Edmiston said they received a number of calls from people about kids playing too closely together and, according to the Hermiston police log, another person called about a business that was screening its employees before letting them in the building but wasn’t enforcing a 6-foot gap between them while they waited in line.

Calls ranged from residents unsure if they were allowed to travel from one place to another to wondering whether they could even reach their workplace or doctor’s office in Southeast Washington out of concern that the state borders had been closed.

There’s been no closures along state borders, and while the state is advising against non-essential travel, Rowan confirmed Wednesday that people traveling throughout Umatilla County won’t be stopped and questioned about where they’re going and why.

“At this point, I don’t think that’s necessary,” Rowan said.

Gas stations

Umatilla residents — and everyone traveling in Oregon — can now pump their own gas until “at least” April 11, the state announced Saturday.

“During this unprecedented time of state emergency, we need to ensure that critical supply lines for fuels and other basic services remain uninterrupted,” State Fire Marshal Jim Walker said in a statement.

At least one attendant is required to be on shift to supervise and make sure that social distancing guidelines are being followed.

After the announcement Heller & Sons in Hermiston noted in a Facebook post that they were closing their deli completely for now, closing their store at 7 p.m. and placing markers on the floor to ensure customers stand in line six feet apart.

“We will continue to have gas attendants to offer legendary customer service and we will continue to sanitize our store, pumps and keypads for your safety,” they wrote.

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