What’s the difference between 3 feet and 6 feet?

For Hermiston students, it’s the difference between hybrid learning and full-time school.

On Monday, March 22, the Oregon Department of Education announced that schools would only be required to keep students 3 feet apart in the classroom. The next day, Hermiston School District announced that all grade levels would be returning to class full time, five days a week, starting April 13.

Superintendent Tricia Mooney said the previous 6-foot requirement had been the thing holding the district back from offering full time school sooner. Once 6 feet was only recommended, but not required, the district was eager to move forward.

“We might have to look at how we use some spaces differently, but we’re excited to have everyone back,” she said.

Building administrators are working out the logistics now.

According to ODE’s “Safe Schools, Ready Learners” guidelines, elementary school students can sit 3 feet apart regardless of their county’s COVID-19 case levels, while middle and high school students can be 3 feet apart in counties with fewer than 200 cases of COVID-19 in a 14-day period. Umatilla County has been averaging roughly half that in recent weeks.

In some situations — including physical education classes, choir or band classes and times when students are taking off their masks to eat lunch — 6 feet of space between students are still required.

Mooney said in Hermiston, students will be spread out in smaller groups in common areas and outdoor spaces to make lunchtime work. Students who don’t bring lunch from home will be given a sack lunch to take to their designated area, and breakfast for the next morning will be sent home with students rather than eaten in the classroom.

She said the other key change in the Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance, updated March 15, changed rules for “cohorts” designed to limit the spread of outbreaks by limiting the number of people students and staff came into contact with in the building. Removing a rule that students must come into contact with no more than 100 different people per week allows high school students to move from class to class for different subjects as they would in a normal year.

Parents face competing considerations

While teachers have been given the option to be vaccinated against COVID-19, it is not required by the district, and there is no vaccine available for children under age 16 right now. As students in Umatilla County have returned to extracurricular activities, some groups — including the Hermiston football team and Pendleton boys soccer team — have already had to quarantine after someone affiliated with the activity tested positive.

Families that are concerned about the potential for their child being exposed to COVID-19 in the classroom will be able to participate in the virtual academy Hermiston Online! instead.

But there are other families that are thrilled to see their children return to learning in person. Misty Grabeel has been one of the parents pushing Hermiston School District to return students to the classroom full time, five days a week. She described herself as “ecstatic” about the news they would be able to do just that.

“It’s been incredibly hard for our family to maintain structure, without me being the mean mom all the time,” she said. “Children need structure. They need routine.”

She is happy to see her 12-year-old and 14-year-old return to the classroom full time, but said beyond that, she has been fighting for students who don’t have a stable, supportive home life. Grabeel said she grew up in a troubled home where drugs were present, and knows how difficult it would have been in her circumstances to be asked to stay at home all day every day. School was her escape, she said, where she knew she would get fed two meals a day and be around adults who were focused on her success.

She said she feels it will also be extremely helpful for students’ mental health to get back into the classroom now, instead of going into summer break with no idea whether they will face another year of virtual learning in the fall.

Staff prepare to help students catch up

Mooney said district staff are generally looking forward to seeing students in person full time.

“When the announcement went out, there was a lot of excitement,” she said. “I was getting messages saying, ‘I’m crying.’”

She said she has a hard-working, talented staff who she has confidence will do what they need to in order to help students recover from less than ideal learning circumstances over the past year.

“The learning loss is not unique to Hermiston, and we’re going to be dealing with that and working to get kids back on track,” she said.

Like many schools in the state, the district has asked the state for a waiver for the lengthy state testing process this spring in order to preserve that time for instruction.

Mooney said she was more concerned about the mental health of students, and dealing with the fallout of the sense of isolation that came from not being in the classroom. The district had already hired a social worker before the current school year began, and she said school counselors have worked hard to reach out to students and families and make connections from the time students were online only. She said she thinks that will pay off.

When asked what graduation might look like this year, Mooney said the district’s former location — the Toyota Center in Kennewick — will not be available for graduation this year, so they are working on another plan, to be announced.

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