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K-12 schools are almost back to normal after a tumultuous year. Getting there has been a journey.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jorge Porrata, a fourth grade two-way immersion teacher at Bridgeport Elementary School, reads a book to his class on the first day of school in September.While the pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of nearly every Oregonian's life, perhaps in no sphere has it had a more pronounced, wide-ranging effect than in schools.

Students began 2021 in "comprehensive distance learning." Campuses remained shut, classroom desks and equipment still gathering dust, bleachers silent and empty. It had been that way since March 2020, and it remained that way until this past March and April.

K-12 schools shifted into "hybrid learning" in the spring, with the winter surge ebbing and the Brown administration pushing for a return to the classroom.

This wasn't a fully satisfying experience, either.

In local schools, hybrid learning meant students divided the week between time on campus and yet more time sitting in front of a computer at home. Fall, spring and winter sports were all crammed into less than a semester's worth of playing time, with approximately month-long seasons for each sport and masks required for much of the time. Desks were spaced far apart, student bodies were divided into "cohorts" with minimal contact between them, and many families were wary enough of the new restrictions and the state of the world that they chose to stick with distance learning for the rest of the 2020-21 school year.

Across Oregon, including in school districts like Beaverton and Sherwood, frustration with the year-long closure of schools and the cautious approach with hybrid learning gave fuel to challengers running for school board seats.

While Beaverton School District voters rejected a conservative slate of candidates by overwhelming margins, the Sherwood School District's voters were more receptive. Among the school board members to lose his seat was Patrick Allen, a former board chair who also happens to be the director of the Oregon Health Authority, the state agency behind much of Oregon's COVID-19 response — and many of its health and safety rules.

Duncan Nyang'oro, who defeated Allen to take a seat on the Sherwood school board, directly criticized Allen over his work in the Brown administration, as well as the leadership of the school district.

"The lack of full-time in person learning is a major issue, and I refuse to stand by and watch our kids suffer any longer," Nyang'oro wrote for a question-and-answer feature Pamplin Media Group did with school board candidates. "We need to be their voice, loud and clear."

He told Pamplin Media Group: "We need a regular parent on the school board, not someone with a political agenda."

Graduations were well-timed — the rolling back of restrictions meant many schools were able to hold traditional ceremonies, mere weeks before the delta variant propelled Oregon's worst period of the pandemic to date.PMG PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - Graduates of Mountainside High School walk in the rain June 13 after the school's first-ever full in-person graduation ceremony.

It was an especially sweet time for Mountainside High School. Beaverton's sixth and newest neighborhood high school opened its doors in 2017. Its freshmen then were able to walk at a real in-person graduation ceremony on June 13 — little less joyous for being drenched by an unseasonably late downpour.

Mountainside was also able to put on a senior prom in the school's expansive courtyard, as well as a senior awards assembly and even a "senior celebration" to take the place of the traditional grad night.

"The level of joy that I've seen the last couple weeks from the kids, and parents, for that matter, we haven't seen for the past year and a half," Mountainside principal Todd Corsetti told Pamplin Media Group. "It is just really validating. It has made those events that much more impactful."

In September, K-12 students finally returned to school five days per week.

While the return of full in-person school this fall hasn't been hitch-free — bus driver and substitute teacher shortages, supply chain issues, and continuing COVID-19 disruptions have all played a role — it has been a welcome relief for students, teachers, administrators and parents.

"We can't actually see their mouths smiling — but you can tell," said Ashlee Hudson, principal of Kinnaman Elementary School in Aloha, interviewed by Pamplin Media Group on the first day of full in-person school. "There was just a really fabulous energy that we didn't really have last year remotely."

The high school sports season has looked almost normal, too. Masks aren't required for athletes actively engaging in play anymore, and each sport is back to a full- or nearly full-length season. While some games have had to be canceled when teams aren't able to field enough healthy students to play, those have been the exception, not the rule.

At the end of a long football season, speaking after his team's loss to Central Catholic in a hard-fought 6A state championship game, Tualatin head coach Dan Lever couldn't help feeling a little emotional about the journey his players had been through.

"I told them all to remember how they felt a year ago, when we didn't know if we'd ever play," Lever told Pamplin Media Group. "That's the silver lining — the fact that we got to enjoy this ride."PMG PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - Micah proudly displays his COVID-19 vaccination card at a clinic organized by Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center at Aloha-Huber K-8 School.

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