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Elected officials vote 6-1 to start the 2020-21 school year with online learning

Elected officials in the Oregon City School District voted 6-1 on July 27 to start the 2020-21 school year with online learning and delay any transition to a hybrid model of instruction to no earlier than Nov. 11.

Larry DidwayOregon City's upcoming online program is being referred to as "comprehensive distance learning" that leaders hope will be a better model than the emergency online instruction from last spring. School officials acknowledged that giving up on starting the school year with any instruction in school buildings will be detrimental to overall education, but is a sacrifice they saw as necessary for the overall health of the population.

"This decision was difficult and heart-wrenching," said Superintendent Larry Didway. "We all agree: kids need to be in school. There is no adequate replacement for in-person learning that can better support student growth, development and overall wellness."

Most board members expressed strong support for the move, while at the same time acknowledging the heavy burden the decision places on many families who rely upon school for child care and academic support while still trying to work.

Scott Dahlman, who remained optimistic that the COVID-19 situation would improve over the next month, was the only school board member to vote against the resolution. He recognized that state mandates would likely prevent in-person reopening of schools but wanted to allow more time for keeping the option open.

"I'm most fearful for our students who have difficult situations at home," Dahlman said. "Unfortunately, for too many students, school is the safest place for them, even with the very real COVID risk."

School board member Steven Soll said that the district owes giving children in vulnerable situations the certainty of knowing how the school year will start in a month, so that educators and allied organizations can begin working with them to maximize any benefits from online learning.

School board member Martha Spiers said that the district was out of time to consider opening in-person classes on Sept. 8.

"We have to turn our attention now to making the best of a terrible situation," she said.

Delaying any potential reopening of Oregon City schools had the backing of strict safety standards for in-person instruction recently released by the governor, along with evidence from county public health authorities.

"It is a devastating reality. However, the school district must ensure a safe environment for students, staff, families and the community," Didway said.

He noted that district polling of families in July showed that 69% opposed a fully distanced learning option, which Didway attributed to bad experiences families had with online learning last spring.

"We can and must do better related to online learning," he said.

Among the differences between this fall's online program versus last spring's program is more contact between students and teachers, along with a return to traditional grading versus last spring's pass/fail model.

Oregon City will remain in a distanced-learning model through the first grading period ending Nov. 11. This fall, school district officials will consider a transition to a hybrid model of instruction that would allow students to attend in-person classes two days a week and continue with remote learning on alternate days.

Based on the data currently available, Clackamas County, the metro region and the state of Oregon do not meet the minimum threshold to permit in-person learning. In order to resume in-person school this fall, Oregon counties and the state as a whole must meet a low threshold of COVID-19 cases that only one county currently meets, according to a mandate issued July 28 by Gov. Kate Brown.

The county in which a school district is located must meet these two standards for three weeks in a row: 10 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents and 5% or less increase in positive tests per week, according to Brown's new mandate.

The state also must 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, and for 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.

Not only are younger children less likely to catch the disease, show symptoms of it or transmit it to others, but in-person learning is more crucial at that age, said state health officer Dean Sidelinger.

School districts must make distance learning plans if the local county has 20 or more COVID-19 cases in a week and/or 7.5% or more of COVID-19 tests in the county are positive.

Districts will immediately return to distance learning if the local county has 30 or more COVID-19 cases in a week or if 10% or more of local COVID-19 tests are positive.

"Let me be really clear: I am absolutely unwilling to lose an entire school year for any of our kids," Brown said. "But it is also incumbent on all of us … to take every measure to slow the spread of this disease so we can get our kids into school as quickly as possible."

Only five Oregon counties had fewer than 10 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents in the previous week, according to state data. All five of these counties — Sherman, Tillamook, Union, Wallowa and Wheeler — are rural and relatively small in population.

When stretched out to the three-week requirement of fewer than 10 new cases per week, only Wheeler County — the state's least populous county — qualifies to reopen classrooms for all students.

The major Oregon counties with the fewest COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents were Benton and Lane counties, with about 10 and 16 cases per 100,000, respectively.

To help make distance learning more effective in Oregon schools that need to do so, Brown announced a release of $28 million of emergency funds to go toward internet hotspots, internet-accessible computers, online curriculum and teacher training.

Brown and Sidelinger also urged Oregonians to keep wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing and washing hands to lower COVID-19 numbers so students can return to class.

"We can't relent, especially if we all work together to reopen schools and get students back in desks," Sidelinger said.

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