UMATILLA COUNTY — More Oregon students will likely be returning to classrooms soon as Gov. Kate Brown announced on Wednesday, Dec. 23, that metrics for reopening classrooms would shift from mandatory rules to guidelines.

She directed the Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority to work with school districts to create plans based on science to put more students “on track” to return to the classroom by Feb. 15, 2021.

While the change gives districts the power to decide for themselves when to reopen, Brown emphasized that school districts should be working health experts to make decisions based on health and safety, and that schools choosing to reopen will still be required to follow mandates such as mask-wearing and social distancing in the classroom.

“As our neighbors to the north (in Washington) have demonstrated, this does not mean schools can resume in-person instruction without regard for COVID-19 spread in the community, but instead should carefully consider the metrics in their local context, the needs of students and families, and readiness to implement health and safety protocols,” Brown said in a statement.

The change means more decisions for local school districts, which have not yet returned from winter break, since the announcement was made and for the most part have not yet announced what that means for their students.

It also means more decisions for parents, who at the beginning of the year already had to decide whether to have their child participate in online or hybrid learning through the local school district, sign up for an online charter school, be homeschooled or participate in the InterMountain Education Service District’s new virtual academy.

About 600 students in Eastern Oregon have enrolled in IMESD’s academy, which offers a sort of middle ground between statewide charter schools and the classes local districts are conducting over video under the banner of “comprehensive distance learning.” Students in the Virtual Learning Academy will go online year-round, even as some districts start bringing students back to the classroom, and are learning from teachers throughout the ESD’s 18 member districts. But the difference between IMESD’s academy and charter schools is that students remain enrolled in their home district.

That compromise is a win-win for students and local districts, IMESD Superintendent Mark Mulvihill said. The state’s per-student allotment of money stays locally with the district, and the student has access to the resources of that district, including school counselors, sports, clubs, scholarships and more.

The virtual academy also gives students access to resources their home district doesn’t usually offer.

“It gives a district like Helix the ability to have classes like Spanish,” Mulvihill said. “They don’t have a Spanish teacher.”

At $8,800 per student in allotment from the state, and about 600 students in the Virtual Learning Academy, that represents more than $5.2 million staying locally that could have potentially been lost to options like homeschooling or Oregon Charter Academy.

Mulvihill said IMESD had been talking about creating a virtual academy for years, but the pandemic gave them the push they needed to make it happen. This year they capped the program at 600 students, but expect that as local schools reopen, future years will likely see lower participation levels.

Madeline Koenig, learning program and student success coordinator for the academy, said so far all 18 of IMESD’s member districts have at least one student enrolled in the academy.

“A lot of parents felt like it was going to be more of a viable option for them than comprehensive distance learning,” she said.

She noted that due to fluctuating state rules and COVID-19 numbers, some Eastern Oregon school districts have brought students into the classroom only to have to close down again later.

“I think some parents wanted to avoid that process but still have a connection to their local district,” she said.

She said so far the feedback has been good overall, and some parents whose children previously attended other virtual charter schools have told her that the coursework is more rigorous through IMESD. Elementary students have the same teacher all day, while older students learn from multiple teachers who have taken on IMESD classes in addition to teaching for local districts.

Hermiston School District is no longer part of IMESD, after the district decided in 2015 to opt out of the regional partnership. The district is offering its own virtual academy this year, known as Hermiston Online!, which offers families an online curriculum developed by third party vendors.

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