Each new school year is a learning experience. Teachers and students join together to create a positive environment out of a new mix of personalities, skill sets and abilities. Educators introduce new technologies and techniques to make sure they’re providing a high-quality and relevant instruction.

Meanwhile, new friendships, milestones, goals and experiences blend together to create an atmosphere of growth and development. It’s an exciting and important time.

We are now two weeks into the 2020-21 school year and have been writing and executing a whole new playbook across the district to contend with state guidelines regarding COVID-19. Many of the bonding experiences teachers have used to bring a class together have been difficult to replicate, but they have worked hard to deliver the core instruction to every student.

It is far from an ideal way to educate, and I’m grateful for the patience of our teachers, staff, students, and parents as we work through the challenges of online-only classrooms. Even when the process has been frustrating, we are all working toward a common goal and are truly in this together.

Because teachers and students are used to quickly acclimating to new situations, we have seen many successes. Our attendance rate this fall with Comprehensive Distance Learning has been much higher than in the spring when we were forced to quickly shift to online learning. Making these daily connections will help bridge the gap until we are able to meet in person again.

When exactly that will be is among the biggest questions we’re facing right now.

Safely reopening schools is the number one priority of the Hermiston School District. The Oregon Department of Education has set up guidelines for when students can return, including two very specific benchmarks — the number of new weekly cases and the test positivity rate countywide.

In order to bring all students back into our buildings, Umatilla County must have no more than eight new COVID-19 cases a week for three weeks in a row. Bringing just K-3 students back into the classroom can be achieved at 24 new cases a week. The county must also have a positive test rate of less than 5%.

As a comparison, the county has averaged about 87 new cases for the past three weeks with a positive test rate of about 15%. We still have a ways to go, and it will take community-wide effort to stop the spread of coronavirus, reopen, and stay open.

And that’s our goal. As much as we’ve learned about delivering online education, the person-to-person communication, class management and accountability are impossible to replicate online. We have many students who desperately need that connection with a teacher, and we won’t be satisfied until we can offer that to every student.

As we continue to do our part to protect against the spread of coronavirus, we are busy planning for the future.

Using information collected from a series of public surveys, the school board last week chose Loma Vista Elementary as the name for the new school to be built on Theater Lane. This keeps in the tradition of naming Hermiston elementary schools after local geographic features. Bidding on the construction of both Loma Vista and Rocky Heights, projects approved by voters in 2019, will begin in early 2021.

The Hermiston High School softball facility project will break ground on Tuesday, Sept. 29, and includes two fields, additional parking, concession stand, restroom, and a storage building. The fields will give the girls sports teams equitable access to a high-quality playing field at the school and have been a long time coming. We’ll announce a time for the groundbreaking soon.

Through this challenging experience we are still feeling the support of this amazing community has for its students, teachers, and schools. It will be an unusual fall, but together we will make the most of it.

Dr. Tricia Mooney is superintendent of Hermiston School District.

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