For the first time since March, some of the desks at Hermiston School District schools have students in them again.
The return to classes is extremely limited — less than 100 children in a district of more than than 5,000 students — but district administrators hope it is a gateway to something more.
“We really have done a thorough job of getting staff and students ready because we want this to be successful,” Assistant Superintendent Bryn Browning said.
For all students to return, school districts must meet a list of strict metrics, including fewer than 10 new confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the district’s county and fewer than 5% of COVID-19 tests conducted in the county coming back positive. But the Oregon Department of Education has told districts they can begin “limited in-person instruction” for certain groups of students if no students enrolled in the district or staff employed by the district have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 14 days.
Umatilla County Public Health only releases general numbers for COVID-19 not tied specifically to school districts, so the Hermiston Herald and East Oregonian have not been able to track the metrics for limited in-person instruction in the same way the public can track the metrics for general cases per 100,000 and test positivity in the county.
Browning said Hermiston School District brought back special education students and students in the Newcomers program, which is for students who have lived in the United States for less than a year.
Browning said as of the first day on Oct. 19, 79 students said they would come back, although on the first day not everyone showed up.
“We had 14 at Highland (Hills Elementary School) today signed up for the Newcomers program but only three showed up,” she said.
As regulated by the state, the district can bring those students into the building for in-person instruction for only two hours per day, supplemented by the distance learning the rest of the student body is receiving. Students are divided up into “cohorts” of 10 students and are not allowed to come into physical contact with other cohorts while at school. Browning said the district is also spacing desks 6 feet apart, requiring masks and following other protocols.
The Hermiston Association of Teachers did not return emailed questions about protocols in the school building before this week’s Hermiston Herald went to print.
Some other districts in the area have also begun limited in-person learning, including Morrow County School District, which has allowed some students in the permitted categories to return to each of its schools in cohorts of 10.
Umatilla School District has not returned any students to the classroom.
“While we have been very close, we still have not met the metrics,” Superintendent Heidi Sipe said.
She also said the state is expected to release new metrics soon, and the district wants to provide stability for families by making sure when they reopen they aren’t immediately changing plans again.
Sipe said she is “counting down the seconds” until she gets to see students in the buildings again. However, the Oregon Legislature has yet to pass any liability protections for schools that would protect them from a lawsuit if they brought students back without properly meeting their metrics and then a student or employee got COVID-19.
“If we don’t follow the rules to a T, the fallout could be huge, and affect students for generations to come,” she said.