Umatilla High School Class of 2020

Graduates parade through Umatilla following Umatilla High School’s commencement ceremony on June 4, 2020. The school district is now making plans for returning students to in-person classrooms in the fall.

As Umatilla School District plans its socially distanced return to school, Superintendent Heidi Sipe is also working to help students return to the classroom statewide.

Sipe is serving on the newly formed Healthy Schools Reopening Council, made up of educators, students, public health experts and legislators from around the state. The council gives feedback to the Oregon Department of Education on proposed rules for reopening schools and works on problem-solving for the challenges presented by social distancing restrictions.

One of the topics they tackled at their most recent meeting was what metrics they can provide districts to help them make decisions about when they should temporarily move to online-only in the event of an outbreak.

“There has been a pretty clear and consistent emphasis in recognizing that a statewide approach would be very challenging,” Sipe said. “What Helix or Echo can do, with the size of their classes, is very different than what I can do, or Hermiston or Pendleton.”

Each district also has different demographics. In Umatilla School District, nearly three-fourths of the students are Latino, more than half are English Language Learners, and more than 95% qualify for free or reduced lunch based on their family’s low income.

In a statement about the Healthy Schools Reopening Council, Gov. Kate Brown said as most districts switch to a hybrid model of in-person and online learning, one of the council’s tasks will be to find ways to make sure that model works for every single student.

“I am pushing school officials to make sure underserved and marginalized students — our kids of color and our low-income kids — get the support and opportunities they need. We cannot allow our response to this pandemic to increase racial disparities in educational outcomes,” Brown said.

While each district faces its own unique set of circumstances, Sipe said there are some common themes that all districts in the state are grappling with. One, for example, is the safety of teachers who fall into categories that put them at higher risk from COVID-19 than most of their students.

“The complexity of that challenge is present in every conversation,” she said.

Sipe said locally, she has been having discussions with staff who, due to age or underlying health conditions, have serious concerns about returning to school while COVID-19 is still active in the community. She said she is having discussions with the unions about how to handle leaves of absence and other issues surrounding that discussion.

Hermiston School District hasn’t released concrete details about its plans for next year, but Superintendent Tricia Mooney said during a recent city council meeting that it will likely be a hybrid model of online and in-person learning, with in-person contact prioritized for the younger grades that have more difficulty learning online.

Umatilla School District plans

Umatilla School District has ordered Umatilla Vikings buffs for all students and staff, as well as clear plastic face shields for staff to wear for extra protection.

Sipe said the buffs — round, scarf-like accessories made famous by the television show “Survivor” — can be worn comfortably around the neck by students, and then pulled up over their mouth and nose when they are near someone else.

Sipe also ordered 300 TV trays for elementary school students to use as small, makeshift desks since schools are not allowed to place students around group tables next year.

“Parents have had concerns about students’ return to school,” Sipe said.

“It’s pretty clear parents are worried about sending their kids back to school, and rightfully so, but they feel like they’re between a rock and a hard place, because they have jobs they need to be at,” she said.

Sipe said they have been presented with three main options next year.

In the hybrid model, students can return to the classroom four days a week, supplemented by some online learning.

For the second option, students can do schoolwork online and participate in virtual classrooms, including interaction through video chat with an in-person classroom during activities, such as story time.

For the third option, parents who are interested in essentially home schooling their child can get curriculum, homework and tests for them to do on their own time, with just an occasional check-in with their teacher.

As of July 17, almost a third of the district’s families had registered for school, and of those families, about 80% have chosen the hybrid model. Sipe said one thing that has seemed to put parents’ mind at ease is that they are allowed to switch during the school year with five days notice, so if one model isn’t working for their student, they’re not stuck with it all year.

The district now has enough Chromebooks for each student in the district to have one, along with setting up neighborhood Wi-Fi hot spots around town that only the district’s Chromebooks can connect to. Another 200 hot spots will be available for check-out by students who aren’t near a neighborhood site.

Sipe said in the past, the district had not provided a Chromebook for each student out of concerns that the devices would be lost or damaged. But she said everyone has returned the devices they checked out in the spring, and only a “handful” out of the 1,000 came back with damage.

Once the pandemic is over, she said, students each having their own Chromebook to take home will probably be the new normal.

She said elective classes, such as band or welding, will still be offered, with some online practice throughout the week and the opportunity for students to come in with small, socially distanced cohorts on Fridays to do hands-on work with a teacher.

“Kids want electives,” she said. “They want to make sure they can still access the fun parts of school, and we want to make sure that answer is yes.”

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