School districts in Umatilla County can see a path forward for bringing students back to the classroom, but it will be a slower journey than many parents hoped.

Hermiston School District Superintendent Tricia Mooney said when Gov. Kate Brown announced shortly before Christmas that the state’s metrics for reopening schools would become guidelines rather than mandates, many parents and even school staff assumed that would mean a quick return to the classroom. But the governor’s announcement didn’t give the full picture, she said.

“If you just read the headline, a lot of parents said, ‘OK, my kid is going back on Jan. 4,’” she said.

One roadblock, Mooney said, is that school districts have been informed by the Oregon School Board Association’s legal counsel that the liability protection passed by the Oregon Legislature does not appear to protect them from lawsuits over COVID-19 outbreaks if they choose to go outside the state’s reopening metrics.

Even though schools are not legally mandated to wait until they reach certain benchmarks for COVID-19 cases anymore, they must still follow the Oregon Department of Education’s “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidelines, which include a list of 164 different rules for social distancing, cleaning, wearing masks and keeping students and staff separated into small “cohorts” to limit the number of people an infected person would expose to the virus. And to complicate matters, ODE has announced it will release updated guidelines on Jan. 19, meaning planning school districts do now could be thrown out the window if the rules change significantly.

Those rules, particularly with cohorts and social distancing, also create logistical challenges for the district, which must find enough classroom space and staff to accommodate students.

That being said, Mooney said Hermiston School District is determined to figure things out, and she hasn’t given up hope that all HSD students could be back in the classroom before the end of the school year.

She said they plan to start by bringing back the students in categories like special education, who were participating in two hours a day of “limited in-person instruction” before the holidays. After that, she said they hope to continue adding back more and more groups students across all the district’s buildings.

They want to do so safely, however, so she said the biggest thing people can do is avoid gatherings, practice social distancing and other measures to bring Umatilla County’s COVID-19 numbers back down. The current safety guidelines from the state say schools shouldn’t reopen if their county has more than 200 cases per 100,000 people over a 14-day period, and Mooney said right now Umatilla County is at more than 1,000 cases per 100,000 people.

“Our case count is high — very, very high — so we’re asking people to do their part,” she said. “With the numbers we have now, it’s not a matter of if we have a case in the schools but when.”

Parent responses

Jamie Aga, who has a third grader in Hermiston School District, said her son has really struggled with online learning.

He used to love school and reading, she said, but he has gotten so resentful now of anything to do with school that he won’t even sit down and listen anymore when she reads a bedtime story to his younger siblings.

“Sometimes he sits there and cries and says he misses his friends. He misses getting to get up and move around during the day instead of being stuck in front of a computer,” she said.

She said she really wants to see schools reopen “sooner rather than later,” but as time marches on and Umatilla County’s COVID-19 numbers shoot up, she doesn’t have much hope for returning by the end of the year.

“I hope so, but I don’t see it happening,” she said.

Liz Sharon, who has students in fourth, ninth and 12th grades, said even though the talk she has heard has mostly been around bringing elementary school students back to the classroom first, she would like to see students in high school prioritized.

She said it is difficult for high school seniors to prepare for graduation and take advanced classes in current circumstances. In December 2020, she said, her daughter in high school had an opportunity to see some of her teachers and coaches during a canned food drive, and came home “beaming” after being able to see them in person for just a little while.

“We will take what in-person we can,” she said of her hopes for what the district does next.

Tamara Hendrickson has a fourth grader and a second grader, and she said she feels they haven’t been as challenged by online schooling as they were for in-person classes, and the lack of social interaction has “impacted their attitude towards school and overall happiness.”

“Being in school last year my kids were gaining a lot of confidence in their abilities and social skills and I’m afraid they are completely missing out on that part of their education,” she wrote in a message to the Hermiston Herald.

She said it is frustrating seeing schools in other states, and even in Oregon, be able to open up while Hermiston hasn’t.

Extracurricular activities

During an update to the Hermiston City Council on Monday, Jan. 11, Athletic Director Larry Usher said the school district and others in its league are also working on plans for the return of extracurricular activities, including sports.

Hermiston has been in a tricky position this year as an Oregon school in a Washington athletic conference, as it has had to follow Oregon Health Authority guidelines and WIAA guidelines. But he said the district’s sports teams have been able to practice and now that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee overhauled his state’s COVID-19 guidelines, it opens the way to have shortened fall and spring sports seasons before the end of the school year, focused on conference play.

They hope to start playing games on Feb. 1, but also have schedules set up to accommodate several later start dates if needed. Usher said the good news is the WIAA has stated it will waive its academic eligibility requirements for student athletes this year, so students who are struggling to keep up their grades under comprehensive distance learning will still be able to participate.

He said the district is concerned about how Oregon students will be able to compete for scholarships and college admissions on a national level against students who have been taking in-person classes this year, but the district is working hard to help them. He said some “highly competitive” students are actually doing better in an online learning environment.

“Some parents say, ‘The classroom was a distraction,’” he said.

Usher said the district misses students deeply, a sentiment Mooney later echoed in her interview with the Hermiston Herald.

We’re looking at how we can get kids in the building, and we’re looking at how we can maximize in-person learning. ... We want our kids back, but we want them safely back and we want to be able to stay open,” she said.

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