Hermiston School District had already seen the writing on the wall for an online-only start to the school year, but for some Eastern Oregon school districts, new metrics from the Oregon Department of Education mean a change in plans.
“We’re back to square one,” Echo School District Superintendent Raymon Smith said.
In order for any school in Oregon to be able to have students in the classroom, the entire state must have less than 5% of COVID-19 tests conducted coming back positive for three consecutive weeks. Then, the county where a school district resides must also have a less than 5% positive test rate and fewer than 10 new confirmed cases per 10,000 people in a seven-day period, three weeks in a row. An exception can be granted for rural schools with less than 100 students to bring kindergarten through third grade back into the classroom if they meet slightly looser metrics, including 30 new confirmed cases per 10,000.
Smith said Echo School District had been making plans to return all students to the building full time in August. Now, they’re throwing their focus into online learning. Teachers who had already embraced technology tools in the classroom are training colleagues with a more analog style, and administration is pulling in training resources from places like the InterMountain Education Service District.
Smith said the approach will look a little more like a traditional class schedule for grades six through 12, although even the oldest students won’t be expected to sit in front of a computer for eight hours straight. There will be opportunities for watching prerecorded lessons at their own pace, and then getting together with the class online later for practice applying the information.
For the younger grades, particularly kindergarten through second, there will be a lot of working in small groups through video chats with teachers and aides, scheduled as much as possible around times that work well for each family.
“Let’s be honest, you cannot educate 25 kindergartners at once by Zoom efficiently,” Smith said.
He said they will have evening sessions once a week where parents can tune in and hear from their child’s teacher about what their student has been learning and what they will be learning in the upcoming week. He encouraged parents to be proactive in alerting their child’s teacher to any issues that could be improved.
Instead of jumping straight into classes on Aug. 24, the first week of school will be used for making sure all students have electronic devices and internet access, and training parents and students on how to use the various devices and platforms being utilized by teachers.
Given how far short Umatilla County falls on any of the metrics for reopening school, Stanfield School District Superintendent Beth Burton said her district is now planning for an online-only start to the year. The school’s second quarter starts on Nov. 9, and she said she hopes the district will have a chance to implement its hybrid model then.
“This is not what we had envisioned,” she said.
Burton said the good news is that the district has much more time to prepare for comprehensive distance learning than they did in when schools were closed with only a day’s notice in the spring. She said parents and students should expect a much more comprehensive, rigorous offering this time around, with students interacting via video with their teacher and peers on a regular basis.
“(In the spring) we worked really hard at it, but we didn’t have the time to be really methodical about planning it,” she said.
Burton said Chromebooks loaned to students in the spring came back in good condition, and after cleaning and upgrading them the district will loan them back out again. She said some of the devices are due to be replaced, but a nationwide shortage means some students might have to make due with the older ones for the first couple of months.
The district had already pushed back its usual August start time to Sept. 8 to give construction crews working on the expansion of the schools more time to work without students on campus. Burton said if there was one silver lining to the school closure in March, it was an early start to the construction.
COVID-19 does, however, complicate the district’s original plans to “cram everyone in” the spaces not under construction during the 2020-21 school year, Burton said.
“Obviously, that would be irresponsible now,” she said.
Whenever students do return to the classroom, it will be in a way that follows the state’s guidelines for social distancing, she said.
Morrow County School District’s board of education planned to meet the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 4, to discuss in detail how the district will offer comprehensive distance learning for the forseeable future.
Superintendent Dirk Dirksen said until the announcement from the state, the original plan had been to offer parents a choice between a hybrid model or an online-only experience. He said the district had planned to help those students who were going to be online-only with access to internet and devices, but it will be more difficult now that the entire school district will be using that option.
“We have enough devices for all the kids, the problem is coming up with internet,” he said. “Some parts of Heppner don’t even have any cell service.”
He said staff were disappointed that they would not be able to serve students in person to start out the year, but they were ready to take up the challenge. One benefit of the online-only start, he said, was they would be 100% focused on making the distance-learning portion be the best it could be.
“It’s not going to be the same as the spring,” he said. “It will be as challenging and rewarding for the kids as if they are in the building. We’re trying to make it that same level of opportunity.”