The school reopening debate is not about whether or not folks want to return to in-person classes. Everyone in local school districts agrees that in-person learning is preferable to distance learning. It is about whether it is safe to return to classrooms per state guidance, according to Newberg School District officials.
With Yamhill County reporting one week of less than 5% positive COVID-19 tests, districts are closer to being able to allow certain students to return to partial in-person learning; youngsters in McMinnville and some from the more rural schools in the county may be back in class sooner than expected.
The Newberg School District, however, is taking a more measured approach, given the uncertain state of affairs with COVID-19 and that the district has staff and students in three separate counties of varying population.
The plan for students to come back is under way with contingencies in place and communication between administrators and families, but it is too early to suggest Newberg students will return to partial in-person learning just yet. In fact, it could be many weeks or months before they do so.
"We worked a lot of this summer on our plans for hybrid learning once we're able to come back," district communications coordinator Gregg Koskela said. "Having done that work first means we're in good shape whenever we get the go-ahead. We've done the basics like what classrooms will look like, how many kids will be in a class at a time, what types of cleaning do we need to do, how do we handle certain procedures.
"The way the metrics work from the state, there are some interim steps we could take before we go to full hybrid learning and bring everyone back. There is limited in-person learning for students with special needs, which we are setting up the procedures for as we speak. The other option is opening earlier grades sooner, kindergarten through third grade."
Kindergarteners through third grade students will be back in the classroom part-time if their county lowers their average to 30 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over the span of three consecutive weeks. Yamhill County is closing in on that mark, but Washington and Clackamas counties — where many students and staff from the Newberg School District reside — aren't close. A county requires 10 cases per 100,000 residents over the same time frame for all students in K-12 to return, according to state orders.
And even if all three of the Newberg School District's counties were meeting either threshold and about to pass the three-week mark, Koskela said the district would not be rushing to implement in-person learning for any of its students.
"As people watch those numbers with us, they need to know that we're not going to open the very first week that we can," Koskela said. "If that were the case, and we end up in a situation where the numbers spike, we'd be open for a week or two and then right back to where we started with full distance learning, which is bad for learning environments as well.
"Everybody, including us, wants to get back to in-person because we know that would be better for everybody in any other situation. But this idea of start, stop, start, stop would be really disruptive to learning. We are going to want to see a couple weeks of being in the clear — four or five weeks in the clear — before we look at going back to hybrid learning."
Full information on the state's COVID-19 numbers, with county-by-county information, can be found at the Oregon Health Authority website at oregon.gov/oha. Updates will also be posted on Newberg School District social channels as they become available.
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