Community torn on reopening of schools
The Canby School District is aiming to return students in grades K-3 to the school buildings in a hybrid learning model the week of Feb. 8.
Superintendent Trip Goodall announced the plans at a school board meeting Thursday, Jan. 7, reiterating that the Feb. 8 date is a goal and is not set in stone.
This comes in response to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's announcement during winter break that the decision to return to in-person learning now lies with individual districts. She also shifted the community health metrics for returning from mandatory to advisory and said she hopes schools will transition to in-person instruction by Feb. 15.
"As this disease threatens to rob almost a full school year of classroom instruction from many of our children, it's absolutely vital to help our kids safely return to in-person instruction as soon as possible," Brown said at a news conference Friday, Jan. 8.
So schools around the state have been working to solidify hybrid learning plans amid pressure to return.
Presently, Canby's plan involves A/B cohorts attending alternating days. But Goodall said the district is waiting to solidify the hybrid schedule until after receiving the results of a survey, due by Jan. 13, that asked families whether they intend to return their students in grades K-6 to the school buildings.
If the K-3 hybrid learning proves successful, the district will expand to include grades 4-6. Goodall said the district does not yet have a hybrid timeline for secondary students.
Project Manager and district spokesperson Autumn Foster noted that upon return, districts must follow strict guidance from the Oregon Department of Education and health authorities, which is set to be updated by Jan. 19.
Some of the protocols include wearing masks, maintaining social distance, following directional signage and staying home when sick. There also is expected to be on-site rapid testing for COVID-19.
In addition to hybrid learning, the district will continue to offer connected at-home learning and the Canby Online Learning Academy. Canby also is working to implement limited in-person instruction for small groups in grades K-12.
"I am a strong believer in parent choice," Goodall said. "Our job is to present appropriate options and the right information to allow parents to determine the best way to have their child educated during this pandemic. I know people talk about it's all about opening schools. I'm looking at this as it's about offering parents options so that they can make an informed decision around what's best for their family and their child."
With the plan moving forward, Human Resources Director Michelle Riddell pointed out that teachers' assignments may shift to make everything work. She said if some teachers opt to take a leave of absence, the district may have to hire temporary teachers to fill the needs.
To help with increased costs, districts soon will receive an influx of federal funding.
Teachers, parents and students weigh in
Canby Education Association President Stefanie Agar spoke on behalf of educators, saying that people have widely varying views on reopening.
"As union president, I represent teachers who are completely comfortable teaching in-person now," Agar said. "I also represent members who are terrified for their lives — and everything in between."
Agar cautioned that school would look far different than before, suggesting students would spend most of the school day inside the classrooms and would not be able to huddle close together for peer work or individual teacher attention.
"Upon arrival, I used to greet my students by standing in the doorway, giving out high-fives and hugs, all with a smile on my face," Agar said. "Now, I will be standing at least 6 feet away with my smile hidden behind my mask. As I greet students from afar, if they smile back, I won't be able to tell because it will be hidden by their mask."
Also at the meeting, numerous students, parents and teachers from the Canby community submitted public comments to weigh in on reopening. Of the comments, 17 were in favor of reopening quickly, eight were opposed and three could be considered neutral. Most in favor of reopening quickly were parents and students; two were Canby teachers. Most opposed were Canby School District staff members.
One concerned staff member was a Ninety-One School instructional assistant, Kelly Welker, who has been abiding by the governor's orders since March, she said.
"I have not visited friends or family indoors since that time," Welker said. "I did not visit family over Thanksgiving, Christmas or the New Year. I have been doing my part to keep our community safe. Now, I am going to be asked to spend time in a classroom with people outside of my immediate family unit. People I don't know well and have no way to know who they have been exposed to. For hours at a time. Day after day. Without proper ventilation. Without proper protection."
Welker then directed a series of questions to the board members, who have been meeting remotely, including whether they'd be willing to meet in person in the same way they're asking staff to. Board Chair Angi Dilkes addressed the concern later in the meeting, noting that she would like to begin meeting in person at the beginning of February.
Welker also asked the board, "Are you willing to accept the death of a teacher or student from COVID as a necessity to be back in school?"
Citing studies and health officials, Goodall and Foster partially addressed concerns around COVID-19. They said it has proven to be relatively safe to return elementary school students if proper precautions are followed.
Students and parents brought up an array of reasons to return to the school buildings including the desire to see friends and the need to catch up academically, as well as emotional health concerns.
Parent Michelle Walker described her child before the pandemic as a "spitfire — strong and smart and amazing." Now, she says, her child has "lost her spark."
"Last year's joke of virtual learning threw her into depression," Walker said. "She hated life. She hated me. She hated the school and she hated herself. This year, that depression has turned into apathy. She no longer cares. I'm not sure which is worse."
Walker said her once academically advanced child now struggles to remember some of the basics.
"My daughter needs school for so many reasons, and I beg you to consider opening doors for the kids who also need it," Walker said. "I know that people are afraid, but children are fading away from us and there are too many who can't fade much more before they're gone."
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