When I’m asked what the 2020-21 school year will look like, there are a lot of possible answers.
“Normal” is not one of them.
The percentage and volume of positive coronavirus cases is higher in Oregon, and specifically Umatilla County, in the first weeks of July than it was in the entire month of March when the state required us to close our school doors.
At that time, our teachers and staff went above and beyond to continue delivering an education to our K-12 students, as well as laptops, internet access, and meals to those who needed them. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but I’m proud to say the staff at Hermiston schools and our community partners made the best of it.
But despite those best efforts, we weren’t able to maintain strong educational contact with many of our most vulnerable students. I would dare say no school district in the state felt the distance learning model is equal to in-classroom lessons for the majority of their students.
Working through the Department of Education’s evolving guidelines for reopening make it clear that a usual fall schedule — regular K-12 classroom teaching included — won’t be possible. We have been given a set of rules at the state level and asked to make them work locally.
The bad news: Many of our most vulnerable students and families will be the most adversely affected by limited in-person engagement with teachers. Children who most need daily support, especially in the younger grades, are the hardest to reach through online education.
The good news: We’re a community that’s always up for a challenge, and has consistently supported local education, students and teachers. Whether it’s cheering on the sidelines of sporting events, concerts and plays, pitching in support during fundraisers, or voting to build new schools to make room for new students, this Hermiston community has stepped up time and again.
That won’t change even as our daily routines and structures shift. We know we can count on the support of this community to show patience and understanding as we thread the needle of state mandates and local needs.
Our goal is to safely return to five-day, on-site education for every student. It seems more likely that we will begin the school year in a hybrid format, where staggered schedules and prioritization of younger grades will be in place. It is far easier to connect remotely with middle- and high-school students than elementary students.
We will continue to offer courses through Hermiston Online for students who wish to learn from home and make every effort to ensure technological access for students without.
It’s in the best interest of this community for school to resume in full, as safely and soon as possible. Every hour of lost classroom time has a tangible impact on a student’s academic prospects. We are at risk of severely damaging a generation of graduates — one of the state’s top measures for success — if we can’t keep up with benchmarks in reading, math, and science.
Schools are tasked with not only providing an education, but keeping children healthy. That includes providing a safe learning environment, ensuring clean facilities, and protecting the physical and mental health of our students.
For those reasons, we have to make sure we’re doing what we can as a community to limit the exposure rate of COVID-19 and stay healthy. We owe it to our students and their future.
Tricia Mooney is the superintendent of Hermiston School District.