2021 IN REVIEW: Washington County schools roll with the changes
While the pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of nearly every Oregonian's life, perhaps in no sphere has it had a more pronounced, wide-ranging effect than in schools.
Students began 2021 in "comprehensive distance learning." Campuses remained shut, classroom desks and equipment still gathering dust, bleachers silent and empty. It had been that way since March 2020, and it remained that way until this past March and April.
In January, Pamplin Media Group reported on the experience of one teacher in the Banks School District — an experience that echoed the strange reality of many educators, as well as parents and students, across Washington County, Oregon and the United States.
"You get into teaching because you want to be able to help all of the kids, right?" Schere Caufield asked rhetorically.
She added that while it was frustrating to feel like she was putting in so much work without knowing whether all of her students were actually learning what she hoped she was teaching, it was also difficult to know that her students were struggling beyond the virtual classroom, especially since not every family has reliable internet access. They weren't just missing lessons about the Holy Roman Empire or the invisible hand of the free market — they were missing basketball games, school plays, barn dances, meeting friends and making memories.
"This is a weird time to be a high school student," Caufield said. "You're losing out on all of these experiences."
K-12 schools shifted into "hybrid learning" in the spring, with the winter surge ebbing and the Brown administration pushing for a return to the classroom.
This wasn't a fully satisfying experience, either.
In Forest Grove and Hillsboro schools, hybrid learning meant students were on campus for just two out of five school days per week. Fall, spring and winter sports were all crammed into less than a semester's worth of playing time, with approximately month-long seasons for each sport and masks required for much of the time. Desks were spaced far apart, student bodies were divided into "cohorts" with minimal contact between them, and many families were wary enough of the new restrictions and the state of the world that they chose to stick with distance learning for the rest of the 2020-21 school year.
Across Oregon, including in school districts like Banks and Hillsboro, frustration with the year-long closure of schools and the cautious approach with hybrid learning gave fuel to challengers running for school board seats.
Mere hundreds of votes kept the Hillsboro school board out of the hands of a slate of conservative challengers, who married time-worn critiques of the school district's sexual education curriculum with newer complaints about the district's handling of education during the coronavirus pandemic. One challenger, Monique Ward, won election, unseating Jaci Spross. The other three on the Communities for Sensible Schools slate fell just short.
"Here we are now towards the end of March and the best that we can do is 1-2 days a week for a few hours?" Ward asked pointedly, in a question-and-answer feature Pamplin Media Group conducted with school board candidates. "Hillsboro, we can do better than this for these students."
Graduations were well-timed — the rolling back of restrictions meant many schools were able to hold traditional ceremonies, mere weeks before the delta variant propelled Oregon's worst period of the pandemic to date.
And the return of something really resembling normalcy at local schools didn't take until the fall in districts like Forest Grove, which was able to roll out an expanded slate of summer programs — including traditional high school extracurricular activities, like band and orchestra camp.
"A lot of these kids never got to play with each other over this past year," said district administrator John O'Neill at the time, speaking with Pamplin Media Group about the summer offerings, "so at the end of a four- or five-day camp, they're going to be able to play and have a concert."
While the return of full in-person school this fall hasn't been hitch-free — bus driver and substitute teacher shortages, supply chain issues, and continuing COVID-19 disruptions have all played a role — it has been a welcome relief for students, teachers, administrators and parents.
"I'm not shocked, because we've got some pretty awesome staff members here, but man, these kids are having a blast," Jackson Elementary School principal Kasia Gutierrez told Pamplin Media Group during the first week of school in September.
The high school sports season has looked almost normal, too. Masks aren't required for athletes actively engaging in play anymore, and each sport is back to a full- or nearly full-length season. While some games have had to be canceled when teams aren't able to field enough healthy students to play, those have been the exception, not the rule.
"They have overcome changes and the 2020 COVID season of delayed practicing, shortened season, and virtual competitions," said Sue Myrick, who coaches the Forest Grove Vikettes dance team, as she reflected on her dancers' accomplishments in an interview with Pamplin Media Group earlier this month. "To come back this year and have a mostly normal season with audience and live performances has been a blessing."
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