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Surveys of parents, staff factored into plan that includes blended learning approach

PMG FILE PHOTO - The Newberg School District was busy last week plugging away at its reopening plan for the coming school year, taking into account the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the hope of releasing it by July 17, the Newberg School District was busy last week plugging away at its reopening plan for the 2020-21 school year, taking into account the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to craft a plan that balances student safety with a quality learning experience.

Feedback is crucial in the process of crafting a plan. According to district communications coordinator Gregg Koskela, the district sent out an online survey to parents earlier this month and received nearly 1,800 responses.

"We've analyzed the feedback on the districtwide level, and we organized everything by school and sent it out to the principals," Koskela said. "They're creating the reopening plans for their buildings, and they have data directly pertaining to their parents' interests. Each plan is going to be tailored to those school buildings, and we are making sure we follow the Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority guidelines."

Newberg will have a districtwide approach to reopening with subtle changes based on each school and age group. Elementary schools have been working together to craft an individualized approach, as have middle schools and Newberg High School. They all will adhere to district guidelines once those are finalized.

"We're doing a lot of collaboration to try and make things as aligned as possible," Koskela said. "A major piece of feedback from that parent survey is a need for students across the district to be on the same schedule timing-wise, mainly because parents might have multiple kids in different age groups or need to fit their kids' schedule around a work schedule."

Following blueprints from the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority, the district is likely to propose a plan that includes two days of in-person classes and two days of remote learning, with one day a week dedicated to independent follow-up with students on their social and emotional learning and providing care in those areas where needed.

Measures for social distancing and limited classroom sizes will be put in place, as will other protective measures aimed at preventing the spread among students and keeping teachers and other staff members safe. It will not look like the full-blown reopening of schools that some politicians at the national level have called for.

"In general, with the requirements from ODE for social distancing and number of students, we have two constraints that keep us from bringing everybody back all the time," Koskela said. "One is classroom space, which brings up issues of keeping six feet of distance along with requirements for a certain amount of square feet per student. We also have the budget constraints of staffing and how to make all of that work."

The high school also is tasked with considering how to meet graduation requirements under the blended model. Teachers at all levels must consider which classes they'll be in, how many students they will teach and how they can stay safe from a virus that is more likely to have debilitating effects on them than their students. The district as a whole has to think about what can improve from its remote learning model at the end of the most recent school year.

Thankfully, Koskela said, with a few months of remote learning and communication under its belt, the district has a better idea of how to best serve its students. The goal, he said, is to provide the safest learning experience possible while also providing quality education. Equity is a concern as well with distance learning implemented.

"We've talked a lot about equity and that is a big concern for us," he said. "We plan to release the general plan and equity is included in there, but I should note we are considering what students need for support. That could be special education students, those who haven't been meeting academic standards, those without Internet access, those who can't afford equipment. Everything is on the table."

The district is using its migrant summer school as an additional test run for distance learning and, at the very least, the entire school district will have part of its learning experience be remote. If the situation with COVID-19 gets worse, the proposed plan could move to full distance learning if mandated by the ODE and Gov. Kate Brown.

Newberg's tentative plan, when released, will then be sent to the Oregon Health Authority and will be focused on keeping students and staff safe during the times when they're in the buildings. Once approved by the OHA, the plan for reopening will then go before the school board and receive public feedback before being voted on. The final gantlet is approval from the ODE, barring any significant changes that require the district to tweak its plan.

The work never ends for those at the district, who have been communicating via Zoom and Google docs for months to get the reopening plan in place. The collaborative nature of their discussion has been a hidden benefit of the pandemic, Koskela said, even as the district tries to work around the obvious health dangers associated with returning to partial in-person learning in the fall.

"We're not done when those plans are set," Koskela said. "Setting protocols is not all we need to do. There is an educational side, preparation for getting kids a quality education, and working hard on planning for contingencies should this virus situation get worse. We don't want to be caught flat-footed for any eventuality."

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