For the third time since March 2020, Hermiston School District teachers and staff are preparing to launch a new educational system for our students.

In the spring, when COVID-19 first began to spread, we quickly transitioned to distance learning, distributing laptops and Wi-Fi routers to create basic virtual classrooms and help our students finish the strange year as successfully as possible. In the fall, we upgraded to comprehensive distance learning, using what we learned in the spring to create a more robust educational experience and adding some creative outreach.

Now, after months of striving toward the state-mandated metrics, we can begin to take a big step forward for our students and families. The state of Oregon has given local control to school districts to set their own reopening schedule for in-person education as they continue to follow health and safety guidelines. This is good news for local families and educators who have been waiting to return to some level of normalcy. We’ve all missed the crucial face-to-face interaction that is part of an education.

However, creating a “new normal” isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. As a school district we have been planning since March how to safely return our 5,500 students to the classroom while continuing to protect against the spread of COVID-19. So far with teachers, staff, and a very limited number of students in our classrooms we have been able to keep on-site infections to zero. This is a promising start.

But we need a system that will be sustainable and account for the health and safety of every person for the long term as we add students to our buildings. Considerations include immunizations, transportation, classroom capacity, health protocols, extracurricular activities, and all the other challenges of in-person instruction during a pandemic.

We will keep the community informed and updated as we develop this plan, and as things change along the way.

It won’t do us any good to open all of our buildings at once and then have to close immediately because staff and students become infected. Schools cannot be a contributing factor to increased community spread, which has already taken such a heavy toll.

It is my hope that educators will be given high priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine and begin getting immunized this month. Education is a foundational and essential service, and having students in the classroom not only provides them with the opportunity to learn and grow, but gives their parents the chance to fully return to their jobs.

The past nine months have been a hardship on everyone, and I can’t express how grateful I am for the response of our teachers and the patience of the community as we have worked together to reopen schools. Our next goal is to return every student to the classroom, and over the coming months we will begin to do just that.

We’ve learned a lot about the capabilities and shortcomings of distance learning. It will continue to be a valuable tool that allows our educators to connect with students in new ways. But for the students it has threatened to leave behind, we are thrilled to be able to offer a better alternative in the near future.

We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.

But it’s energizing to enter 2021 with the hope that we will return to the classroom soon and finish this school year strong.

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Dr. Tricia Mooney is superintendent of Hermiston School District.

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