Leaders talk education during pandemic
On the heels of the Estacada School District offering hybrid learning to elementary students, Superintendent Ryan Carpenter joined Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill in a question-and-answer session facilitated by Rep. Christine Drazan.
During a virtual event on Monday, Feb. 1, produced by CTV 5 in Canby, the three leaders discussed reopening metrics, state testing, sports and online class sizes, among other topics that schools face during the COVID-19 pandemic. Questions had been submitted by constituents prior to the event.
"The Estacada School District successfully completed the beginning of hybrid reopening. We welcomed back our kindergarten and first graders on campus, which was such a breath of fresh air," he said, adding that they had reached a time where they could safely begin hybrid reopening under the "Ready Schools, Safe Learners" guidelines from the state. "It's really been a long journey for the Estacada School District … Estacada has always stayed consistent that we were going to continuously follow the metrics. That's where science has indicated a safe spot for us to be moving forward."
Some Estacada kindergarteners and first graders began participating in hybrid learning on Monday, Jan. 25, and additional groups of elementary schoolers will start hybrid learning on Monday, Feb. 8.
Drazan noted that one question she had received focused on the district's communication with employees about the reopening process.
"We've been doing employee forums, hosted by the superintendent, where all employees have the opportunity through Zoom to be able to express concerns and get some of their questions answered. We've been doing that on a frequent basis," he said. "Our department directors, as well as our building principals, have their own leadership teams, and we've been collecting voices throughout the process to make sure that any safety fears could be mitigated so that we could have a successful launch."
Gill said schools are not super-spreader locations for the virus, "but only if they include all those health and safety protocols."
"The kids tend to be able to follow (COVID-19 safety rules) pretty well," he added. "We teach them a lot of rules and protocols in school, like walking in a line. So now, we're teaching them how to walk in a line and be six feet apart. When those things are in place, we can do a really good job of mitigating the spread."
In addition to younger children not spreading the virus as frequently, Gill said it's easier to create smaller cohorts of elementary school students.
"In elementary school, typically it is mostly in one classroom, and those students only impact each other," he explained. "In a middle and high school setting, students often travel from class to class throughout the day."
He added that if someone came to a secondary school setting and discovered they had COVID-19 the following day, each of their classes would need to enter quarantine, as would the other classes their teachers teach.
"It's just a much more challenging setting to do this in middle school and high school, and one that can be very disruptive to students and families and the educational process," Gill said.
Carpenter noted that he is "optimistic about the potential of spring sports."
"I really do believe that school districts in general are trying to be as innovative as they can to foster this play and foster this activity," he said. "It's definitely not going to look like you would imagine a Friday night football game is going to look.
"But at the end of the day we're optimistic to try to make it happen."
Learning during the pandemic
One parent Drazan heard from was concerned that a first grader was in an online class of 48 students. Both Carpenter and Gill said the large class size was potentially because of the transition to hybrid learning.
"(On hybrid days,) there's a need to have half of the class in that normal classroom setting on campus, and then the other half of that class is online in conjunction with those who are electing to stay 100% online," Carpenter said. "I will say that this is a really positive option. This model allows parents to make the best decision for them, and school districts are working hard to try to accommodate those desires of the families and still offer robust and high educational opportunities."
Carpenter asked parents to have patience as the district establishes a routine with hybrid learning.
"I know that school districts, including ours, are working hard to support that class with more adults and more breakout group opportunities to really reduce the size," he said.
When asked about standardized testing, Gill said it would not occur this spring because it requires technology and other elements that not all students have at home.
"We don't have somebody there ensuring that it's only the students work(ing)," he said. "We don't have somebody there that can handle the technology support for students when they get stuck, and we can't guarantee that every student would participate."
Drazan said she hopes educational leaders reconsider the decision about testing.
"I want to encourage you to think about this in a way that allows for policymakers, as well as educators, to have a sense of what the real gap is that we need to band together to address, and not just with anecdotal concern," she said. "I would expect that there will be some very real strategies that will take additional money that educators would like to engage with, to support student learning … without additional resources and without a basis to support those additional resources, it's going to be an interesting conversation."
Carpenter noted that in Estacada, teachers are closely monitoring student progress with proficiency grading.
"We're truly measuring the Common Core standards and the essential standards. We can report to families just exactly where their students are, as well as where their deficits are," he said. "We're learning through this school year [that] students are learning at a slower pace and teachers are teaching their units and their essential learning standards at a slower pace. There is no doubt that there's going to be a bit of a slide when it comes to the pace of what we're expecting students to learn to know and to do. But at the end of the day, I believe it's this accurate reporting that will allow us to successfully pass on to the next grade level or next context. I can only speak for Estacada schools, but we're doing a lot, and the data is telling us that there are some strengths and weaknesses."
Carpenter said he sees "momentum" moving in a direction that would allow for additional in-person learning next school year, citing the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine to educators and increased community awareness about the virus.
"I think that communities in general are starting to understand their role in preventing spread. Over the last two or three weeks, specifically in Clackamas County, we're starting to see the case counts reduce, and I want to say thank you," he said. "You can agree or disagree with protocols and procedures as much as you'd like. I do believe that communities are starting to become a team and doing their part to reduce that.
"Every case that that goes down is a greater opportunity for school districts to open."
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