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School districts decide to start the 2020-21 school year with online learning

Gladstone and North Clackamas officials announced this month that the 2020-21 school year will begin with online learning, as school buildings remain closed due to COVID-19.

School officials acknowledged that giving up on starting the school year with any instruction in school buildings will be detrimental to overall education, but it's a sacrifice they saw as necessary for the overall health of the population.

"We all wish we could have our students back in school connecting with classmates, teachers and staff," said Gladstone Superintendent Bob Stewart. "However, cases of coronavirus across our country and state continue to escalate, reaching daily records in Oregon and across the nation."

Online educational programming is being referred to as "comprehensive distance learning" that leaders hope will be a better model than the emergency online instruction from last spring.

Stweart said choosing an instructional model in July is giving educators time to focus on instruction and engagement best practices, as each student gets a Chromebook or tablet for schoolwork.

"Our team is planning a quality distance-education program for students that will give students frequent real-time connections with their teachers and classmates," Stewart said.

Delaying any potential reopening of Gladstone or North Clackamas schools had the backing of strict safety standards for in-person instruction recently released by the governor, along with evidence from county public health authorities.

"The pandemic has impacted every student, so social-emotional learning and support will be more important than ever," Stewart said. "We will also provide support to meet the unique needs of students of color, students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students."

NCSD will offer online instructional models at least through the first part of November, allowing for a continuous grading period before any adjustments are considered. Parents were offered the option to choose an online-only cirriculum by Aug. 5 without the possibility of their kids going back into school buildings this school year.

This fall school district officials will consider a transition to a hybrid model of instruction that would allow students to attend in-person classes two days a week and continue with remote learning on alternate days. Gladstone's superintendent did not offer a date as to when students will return to schools.

"While we all wish we could return to school and life as usual, the COVID-19 virus will determine how long comprehensive distance learning will continue," Stewart said. "We will keep planning for the hybrid model so when the virus recedes to a safe level, we will be ready to bring students safely back to classrooms."

Based on the data currently available, Clackamas County, the metro region and the state of Oregon do not meet the minimum threshold to permit in-person learning. In order to resume in-person school this fall, Oregon counties and the state as a whole must meet a low threshold of COVID-19 cases that only one county currently meets, according to a mandate issued July 28 by Gov. Kate Brown.

The county in which a school district is located must meet these two standards for three weeks in a row: 10 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents and 5% or less increase in positive tests per week, according to Brown's new mandate.

The state also must have 5% or fewer positive tests as a whole, the new rule states.

The rule is slightly less strict for kindergarten through third grade classes, and for rural school districts with fewer than 100 students. Those grades and school districts can reopen in-person education if their home counties have 30 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over seven days, the mandate states.

Not only are younger children less likely to catch the disease, show symptoms of it or transmit it to others, but in-person learning is more crucial at that age, said state health officer Dean Sidelinger.

School districts must make distance learning plans if the local county has 20 or more COVID-19 cases in a week and/or 7.5% or more of COVID-19 tests in the county are positive.

Districts will immediately return to distance learning if the local county has 30 or more COVID-19 cases in a week or if 10% or more of local COVID-19 tests are positive.

"Let me be really clear: I am absolutely unwilling to lose an entire school year for any of our kids," Brown said. "But it is also incumbent on all of us … to take every measure to slow the spread of this disease so we can get our kids into school as quickly as possible."

Only five Oregon counties had fewer than 10 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents in the previous week, according to state data. All five of these counties — Sherman, Tillamook, Union, Wallowa and Wheeler — are rural and relatively small in population.

When stretched out to the three-week requirement of fewer than 10 new cases per week, only Wheeler County — the state's least populous county — qualifies to reopen classrooms for all students.

The major Oregon counties with the fewest COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents were Benton and Lane counties, with about 10 and 16 cases per 100,000, respectively.

To help make distance learning more effective in Oregon schools that need to do so, Brown announced a release of $28 million of emergency funds to go toward internet hotspots, internet-accessible computers, online curriculum and teacher training.

Brown and Sidelinger also urged Oregonians to keep wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing and washing hands to lower COVID-19 numbers so students can return to class.

"We can't relent, especially if we all work together to reopen schools and get students back in desks," Sidelinger said.

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