It was raining on Monday, Jan. 4, as about 20 students and parents stood on the street corner outside Hermiston School District’s offices, holding signs encouraging the district to return to in-person classes as soon as possible.

“Isn’t our future essential?” said one florescent yellow poster board held by a group of sophomores.

Nick Purswell, a Hermiston High School sophomore and three-sport athlete, said not only was it frustrating to miss out on opportunities to play sports, but he also worries about what the months of online learning will do to students’ grade point average and ability to take advanced classes.

“It’s really a disservice to those who are trying to set themselves up for success,” he said. “If you’re taking AP Biology, how are you supposed to learn that through a computer screen?”

He said online school had been difficult mentally and physically for a lot of students.

JR Starr, a freshman, said it had been disappointing not to get the full high school experience for his first year.

“Kids just need to be able to talk to each other, not over just a computer screen,” he said.

Max Spencer, holding a cardboard sign saying “Seniors can’t wait,” said he was sad about missing out on “normal” high school senior experiences. He also worried about how well he was being prepared for post-high school education.

“We’re not learning things online,” he said.

Most Oregon students haven’t been in a brick and mortar classroom since March 2020, and for Hermiston students in particular, the goal of returning has seemed distant under past metrics from the state that required low COVID-19 case numbers and test positivity rates while Hermiston has consistently been one of the hardest-hit communities in the state.

Protesters saw an opening now, however, as Gov. Kate Brown announced right before Christmas that those metrics would become guidelines encouraging school districts to keep their staff and students safe rather than strict mandates.

After a few minutes of Monday’s protest, Superintendent Tricia Mooney came outside in the rain, wearing a black mask, to thank the for their support and let them know there was “no greater priority” for the district than safely bringing them back.

“We miss you guys more than ever,” she told the students in the group. “We miss seeing your faces.”

While Hermiston School District has not yet announced a schedule for when students will come back to their schools and what exactly that will look like, Mooney told the students that district administrators were working on a plan. She asked everyone to be on the lookout for surveys about the issue, and encouraged everyone to reach out to her by email with any questions or concerns.

“I will answer as I have answers to give,” she said. “I don’t have all the answers yet.”

That news was welcome to parents at the protest as well as students. Ashley Perkins was standing on the corner with her daughters, Emma Perkins, a sophomore, and Kayla Perkins, a sixth-grader. She said she wanted to let the school district know her family supported getting kids back into the classroom as soon as they can.

Emma said she looked forward to being able to form more of a relationship with her teachers, and be more engaged in class.

“It’s really hard to find the motivation to do school work,” she said of distance learning.

While students could be back in classrooms soon, for large districts, such as Hermiston, COVID-19 safety presents a challenge. While the metrics for reopening are now optional, safety rules such as spacing students 6 feet apart, requiring them to wear masks and keeping them with the same cohort of students all day have not.

Other districts in the area are grappling with the same questions about how to make in-person classes work with social distancing, and whether it is advisable to open at all. After Brown made her announcement, Pendleton Superintendent Chris Fritsch sent out a letter on Dec. 30, 2020, that sketched out what the district could do with wider latitude while tempering expectations.

And although the metrics were just made advisory, they’re still being calculated and tracked. In his letter, Fritsch noted that Umatilla County’s late December 2020 case rates were “648% over the advisory level for reopening elementary schools and 1,296% over the advised level for secondary schools.”

Once schools reopen, the next challenge they will need to solve is how to stay open. If schools start to experience outbreaks of COVID-19, education may revert to an online-only format.

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