Before talking about plans for the 2021-22 school year, I want to take a moment to recognize what our students and families have been through.

This will be the third consecutive year that our educational process has been disrupted by COVID-19. That’s a significant amount of time for a K-12 student — nearly a quarter of the school years they will spend in public education.

When this process is disrupted, it affects everyone. It stunts academic and social growth and puts additional burdens on families. It forces us to accept less than the best. It leaves everyone frustrated and divides the community.

For the educators and staff in our schools, that’s heartbreaking. Our entire mission is the equitable education of Hermiston’s youth, and to see so many losing opportunity and growth has been the most difficult part of the past 18 months.

It’s why we’re taking our return to the classroom this fall so seriously. It’s not ideal, but the restrictions we’ll be working with on the first day of school are far better than the virtual and hybrid learning environments we’ve been through.

The balance between local and state control has gone back and forth and is currently leaning toward the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and Oregon Department of Education (ODE). Because we are still in a “state of emergency” under the governor’s executive order, the OHA has the authority to set guidelines to protect public health.

Since children are required by state law to attend school, and COVID-19 is still prevalent in our state and community, OHA will require students, staff and anyone else in school buildings during the school day to wear mask or face shield at school to reduce further spread of the virus.

There are some exceptions: masks can be removed while eating or drinking, playing a musical instrument, playing sports where wearing a mask could cause a hazard, or when a staff member is alone in a private office or empty room.

As the situation changes, so will this rule. It’s our goal and the stated goal of the ODE for control of these policies to return to local districts, and we’re already planning for how we will implement our own balance of safety, access, and equity. To ensure the health and safety of our students, staff, and their families, some level of precaution will be in place.

We do still have local control over voluntary, noneducational programs, including sports, activities, and other extracurriculars outside of the usual school day. We also retain the ability to set our own protocol for the district office, board meetings, and other non-required gatherings, where masks will not be required but caution will be urged.

Ultimately, our best way forward is to significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19. We’re tired of talking about it and tired of living in it, but there are still many people vulnerable to the virus — including those 12-and-under students in our district who cannot yet receive the vaccine.

We are looking at the bright side. We are returning to the classroom in a few short weeks for what we hope to be the first complete in-classroom school year since 2018-19. We have a lot of work to do, and we’re excited to get to it.

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Tricia Mooney is superintendent of Hermiston School District.

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