Schools navigate evolving circumstances of pandemic, wildfires
In the aftermath of the Clackamas County wildfires and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, teachers and leadership at the Estacada School District are determining the best way to facilitate learning for students.
Earlier this month, the district announced that comprehensive distance learning would continue through Thanksgiving break.
Members of the Estacada Education Association said the statement from the district is in line with their previous request for additional details about the reopening process.
"It definitely provides a lot more clarity. We really appreciate it," added Heather Treanor, president of the union and teacher at Estacada High School.
Previously, Treanor spoke at the October meeting of the Estacada School Board and requested that district leaders publish a plan for where COVID-19 metrics need to be prior to reopening.
"Where do the metrics need to be before we can reopen limited in-person? Where do the metrics need to be before we can open hybrid classes?" she asked. "That way the staff can know when to start preparing for return so we can monitor those metrics."
On behalf of the union, Treanor also requested that comprehensive distance learning (CDL) be in place through the end of this calendar year.
"In making the call to do all CDL until the end of the year, or at the very least being transparent with where the metrics need to be in order for us to reopen and at what stage, you can give your staff a much needed sense of stability," she said. "I look forward to continuing to work with district leadership on safely reopening our schools because again, that's what we want. We all have the same and goal — to see our kids back in our buildings. We just need to do so in a way that he was safe. We want to do so in a way that gives everybody some stability."
COVID case causes changes
In the aftermath of a COVID-19 case at River Mill Elementary School — the individual was an adult who did not have any close contact with students — the district is operating under a comprehensive distance program. Previously, small groups were participating in targeted in-person learning, though the majority of students were engaged with distance learning.
Currently, the only students on campus are students in the pre-kindergarten program and participants in a daycare program that is unaffiliated with the district. Additionally, some students are participating in extracurricular activities, which are mainly outside.
About 20 students are in pre-kindergarten at River Mill Elementary School, and about 20 are in the daycare program at Clackamas River Elementary School.
Staff who have opted to teach remotely from their classrooms participate in daily health screenings and contact tracing.
State announces new metrics
On Friday, Oct. 30, the Oregon Department of Education announced new metrics for reopening, updating the guidelines previously released in July. Counties must meet a benchmark over a two-week average, rather than meet it for three weeks in a row, along with more flexibility with case count and test-positivity benchmarks.
To be in the "green zone" and bring back all K-12 students, a county must have fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 residents in a two-week average — or less than 30 total cases over that two-week span for small-population counties — and a county test positivity rate of 5%.
The new metrics' "yellow zone" — where elementary can be taught in-person or hybrid, but the state recommends older students stay home — is a county case rate between 50 and 99.9 cases per 100,000 residents and a county test positivity rate between 5% and 7.9%. Small counties can have between 30 and 44 total cases in a two-week period.
In the yellow zone, middle school and high school should be primarily comprehensive distance learning until schools can demonstrate the ability to limit transmission in the school environment.
Counties reach the "orange" transitional zone if they have between 100 and 200 cases per 100,000 residents and a county test positivity rate between 8% and 10%. Small counties can have between 45 and 60 total cases.
Estacada School District kindergarten teacher Shellie Adams noted that the new metrics will better allow educators to plan for upcoming weeks.
"In the other (reopening plan), the range was so small," Adams said. "I appreciate the numbers being a big enough scale, so we don't have to do a big back and forth. As the numbers go up, we know we need to prepare. It leaves more room to plan and prepare."
Prior to Gov. Kate Brown announcing the first set of COVID-19 metrics for school reopenings in July, the Estacada School District was prepared to operate under a hybrid model for the 2020-21 school year. The district gave the option for students to participate in a blended online and in-person model or a completely virtual option, the latter of which about 14% of families expressed interest in.
Under the hybrid model, students would be divided into two cohorts designated through alphabetical order by name, as well as family members and other instances of students sharing a home. One cohort would be in school buildings on Mondays and Tuesdays, and another cohort would be there on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Students would participate in classes online for the two days they are not attending school in person.
However, in light of the state's metrics, the Estacada School Board unanimously approved superintendent Ryan Carpenter's proposal to operate under a comprehensive distance learning plan through Friday, Oct. 30.
Estacada School District Communications Director Maggie Kelly noted that the reopening process is a collaborative decision involving administrators and department heads, who provide perspective from teachers.
"We're getting a really holistic look about where everyone is at, where the metrics are and whether they're trending in the right direction," she said. "We don't want to open if the metrics are trending upward and we might have to return to distance learning."
The district's plans underwent multiple changes in late September, as community members began to deal with the aftermath of the Clackamas County wildfires.
An email Carpenter sent staff on Thursday, Sept. 24, informed them that the Oregon Department of Education was expected to announce reopening metrics for communities, including Estacada, that were severely impacted by wildfires. A hybrid reopening was expected to occur on Monday, Oct. 5.
"The Oregon government and Estacada Schools share an understanding that our community has experienced a significant trauma and impact due to local wildfires and evacuations," the email stated. "Our district is thankful for the opportunity to serve our families during this unprecedented time of need, and also acknowledges the challenges our staff will work through to provide this necessary offering to our community."
Kelly noted that the discussion with ODE occurred prior to the district realizing what the full impact of the fires on families. In the aftermath of the Riverside and Dowty Road fires, a total of 50 homes were lost in the Estacada area. Around one dozen of these families have students in the district.
"We were preparing for a lot of property loss and trauma to our families. We started a conversation with the governor's office about the possibility of schools opening in a controlled setting. We frontloaded our staff on that situation, even though it was evolving, so they could prepare," Kelly said. "When we had an idea of the scope, we realized we could serve our families who lost property through limited in-person instruction, which is less of a risk than hybrid."
Carpenter sent an email to staff on Tuesday, Sept. 29, stating that the district would continue with comprehensive distance learning, with limited in-person instruction for small groups of students.
"Today, based on the COVID metics spike recorded yesterday in our county and state, along with the Governor's office and ODE still working on the language to allow schools in our circumstances to serve students, our leadership team has made the determination to continue moving forward with Comprehensive Distance Learning and will begin serving students using the "limited in-person instruction" exceptions allowed to us by the state of Oregon," he wrote.
Treanor expressed concern at the rapid nature of the changes, noting that teachers need adequate time to prepare lessons for hybrid or distance learning scenarios, and that some may need to find childcare for their own families with the move to hybrid learning.
"It's concerning to the union to be given just over a week's notice for that switch," she said. "In two weeks, we had a roller coaster of expectations. Staff finds that hard to manage. Hybrid and comprehensive distance learning are completely different methods of teaching ... Stability allows teachers to plan out a little further. If we know this is the plan, we can have our lessons ready."
Adams said she went through "a roller coaster of emotions" when she learned they might be moving to hybrid learning.
"I started putting their names on things," she added. "I got so excited."
Kelly said that district leadership is striving to be "open and transparent" with staff about the reopening process.
"It's a balancing act of wanting our staff to have the most updated, cutting-edge information and the concern of communicating to staff before we have all the details of an evolving situation," she added. "We feel like we've continued to work with staff and our teacher leaders to move past what occurred in September and continue to make decisions that are methodological and appropriate."
Looking to the future
Both Kelly and Adams spoke to the value of in-person learning delivered under the district's hybrid program.
"For some kids, distance learning is totally feasible. For the majority of kindergarten students, it's not a sustainable model," Adams said. "(Distance learning) is not ideal for every family, but we're slowly getting into a groove."
"We know there are still barriers in our current setting," Kelly noted.
Treanor thinks increased stability from one consistent teaching model will benefit students of all ages.
"I think it's hard on some students to have them in the building for a few days, then we have a COVID case, and they have to go to comprehensive distance learning," she said, noting that some older students may have jobs to coordinate with. "Mentally, it's a really tough break for students as well."
Adams added that she sees value in the district's call to potentially switch to hybrid learning after Thanksgiving break.
"If we could get a trial run of hybrid learning before Christmas break, I wouldn't be upset by that," Adams said. "I want (the students) back in here, but we want to do it in a way where we can assure parents that they'll be safe."
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