Superintendent Dave Parker said district officials are working to offer an improved distance learning experience.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Cameron Bennett, a student in Forest Grove High School's mechatronics capstone class, shows off a design he made in February 2020.With the school year fast approaching, school districts throughout the state are scrambling to provide the safest and most productive environment for teachers and students amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

On Tuesday, July 28, a number of school districts across Oregon — including the Forest Grove School District — announced they would be providing an entirely online experience to start the school year, and would remain virtual until the daily infection rate dips to or beneath the metric provided by the Oregon Department of Education.

The county in which a school district is located must meet these standards for three weeks in a row: 10 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents and 5% or less positive tests per week, according to Gov. Kate Brown's new mandate. The state must also have 5% or less positive tests as a whole, the new rule states.

The rule is slightly less strict for kindergarten through third-grade classes, or 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.

Read the EO Media Group's story on state metrics for reopening schools, published online July 28, 2020.

FGSD Superintendent Dave Parker cited that in successful instances in countries around the world, they did so in surrounding areas where infection rates were going down. In Oregon, and more specifically Washington County, the seven day average of infection rates has been steadily rising since May 27. That's a problem, and one that's triggered pause in the district's original plan which provided both a Hybrid and Comprehensive Distance Learning option in the fall.

"For us to open schools in that environment means that we're going to be spreading the virus in our schools," Parker said. "So in Washington County, we started talking about this and said, 'This is going to be a problem, and we've got to do something.'"

Another issue Parker noted was tied to testing protocols. At present, it's taking roughly a week for most people to receive results from COVID-19 testing, which causes obvious problems revolving around containment, and also complicates the contact tracing process.

"Until we can get contact tracing and testing that is happening efficiently, people are going to be in our schools for a week spreading the virus before we even know to quarantine them," he said. "And that's, again, a huge problem for us to try and keep our schools open."

The fear for many is the potential volatility of the ever-increasing problems as the numbers of infections continue to grow. Parker shares those concerns, and he understands what that volatility could mean in education.

"We see a scenario where we're going to open these schools, we're going to have an infection, and then we'll be closing that school," Parker said. "And we're going to be in this up-and-down, in-and-out situation, and that's not going to be a good environment for us to teach school in."

Forest Grove's initial plan, announced July 17, was to provide a two-pronged plan in which families could elect either "comprehensive distance learning" or a so-called hybrid model in which students would attend school on either Mondays and Tuesdays or Thursdays and Fridays, spending the rest of the school week on homework or distance learning.

Parker noted that the district's July 28 announcement isn't an abandonment of the previous plan, but more so a delay until a later date when Washington County has a better grip on the virus.

"At some point this year, we're going to get a handle on this," Parker predicted. "And then we'll begin to move kids into an in-school support system, and we'll take this hybrid model that we've been working on to help provide all of our kids with the education they need and deserve."

On July 23 and July 24, the Forest Grove School District held an online question-and-answer session to allow community members a platform to further understand what the coming educational experience may look like. Parker said that more than 300 people participated, and more than 150 questions were asked and answered to the best of district staff's ability. Concerns ranged from safety issues to logistical problems such as internet access and, going forward, the overall experience of virtual teaching.

While Parker believes the community has confidence in the school district, he said he thinks the district can do better than it did in the spring, especially when it comes to providing an equal, quality experience to students across the board.

"At some point this year, we're going to be in school, and at some point this year, we could be out of school," Parker said. "Google Classroom didn't have the assessment capabilities we needed. Kids and parents need feedback, and everyone needs to know what kids are and aren't learning, so we have new software that should allow us to improve upon that."

In addition to format, Parker added that he's proposing that school start Monday, Sept. 14, so that the week prior can be used for professional development, so that they can get their teachers well-versed on how to properly use their new tools. The Forest Grove School Board will have to sign off on that change to the academic calendar.

"We want to bring those teacher teams together to talk about how we're going to fix a couple of the pieces that need to get fixed regarding the distance learning," Parker said. "I feel like parents understand that we care, and we really want to do great work, but there's some technical pieces here that are getting in the way of that."

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