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Schools returned to full time at the start of the second semester, Jan. 26, thanks to some recent changes in state COVID restrictions

 - Students in Tina Katzenberger's CTE class learned how to make rocket straws during the first full-time week. Prior to Jan. 26, middle school students only attended school two days a week.

Crook County High School students walked into their school building three weeks ago and were greeted with a sign that under normal circumstances would have looked grossly out of place.

"Welcome back from spring break," it read.

But the sign, strange as it might have been to see on a late January school day, was completely appropriate in the pandemic world the students are forced to navigate.

"The leadership students came to school the Friday before we started full time and decorated the building to welcome students back," said Principal Michelle Jonas. "This was the first week that all of our students have been in the same building since that (spring break) time."

Thanks to a change in school COVID metrics, Crook County School District was finally able to provide full-time in-person education at all grade levels. The change was made on Jan. 26, the first day of the second semester.

When Gov. Kate Brown announced in late December that school COVID metrics would be deemed advisory, rather than mandatory, many education leaders criticized the decision.

"The governor has said multiple times throughout this pandemic that we must keep our communities healthy while prioritizing the need to get our students safely back into schools – today's decision accomplishes neither of those goals," OEA President John Larson said. "Instead, Gov. Brown will radically and abruptly change the circumstances by which students and educators are brought back into our public schools, with no time for thoughtful input from Oregon's education stakeholders and with no real plan for rolling these changes out in any type of deliberative manner."

But in Crook County, where in-person education was already taking place on a limited basis, the ability for all grades to go full time was welcome news.

"This is a monumental moment for our school district, and we're one of the first districts in the state to return all students full time," Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson said. "Our goal since September was to open our schools and provide in-person instruction as long as public health experts said it was safe, and our team has proven that it's possible to serve students successfully during a pandemic."

And when day one of full-time school arrived for the middle school and high school, educators and students hit the ground running.

"The transition of going to full time has been smooth, and it has great to see all the students in the building again," Jonas said. "There have been some small changes, including staggered passing periods and release times, but those were well-anticipated and in place before the transition."

Crook County Middle School Principal Kurt Sloper reported a smooth transition as well. He pointed out that school staff continue to emphasize safety practices involving masks, distancing and cohorts, which students and families know is part of the requirements to be in school full time.

"Our students are resilient and want to be here," he added. "Any changes or barriers have been met with flexibility, understanding and best efforts. Things are still a little different due to ODE guidelines, but overall, we have not had any major hiccups."

High school students seem to be excited about being back full time, Jonas observed, but added that they had to readjust to leaving the house every day and heading to class.

"Some report being tired like they are at the beginning of a school year," she said.

Meanwhile, at the middle school, Sloper reports that students are having to get back into "academic shape."

"Our students have not been in school all day, every day, since March," he said. "Getting back and into routines has been something new. We've kind of chuckled that it's like the first week of practice in sports. We are still getting into school shape."

The transition wouldn't have been as successful, Jonas and Sloper said, without the dedication and hard work of the teaching staff. Jonas stressed that the high school teachers have stepped up and are working hard. Sloper added that the middle school staff has been tireless in their commitment.

"Without a doubt, the opportunities that our students have right now would not be possible without our staff," he said.

About three weeks into the full-time school schedule, students and educators are not only relishing the return to face-to-face teaching and learning, they are enjoying stuff that they used to take for granted.

"It's fun to chat with kids, watch them hang out with each other or just play football at lunch break," Sloper remarked. "I had to tell a kid not to throw a carrot in the cafeteria at lunch the first week back. I kind of laughed at myself and thought, 'I haven't had to say something like that in quite a while.'"

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