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State education department says districts are unlikely to re-open this school year

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Students study in the newly renovated library at Grant High School. On March 30, the Oregon Department of Education advised schools that they likely won't re-open for the rest of the academic year.
Schools across Oregon are preparing for the possibility that they may not reopen for the rest of the school year.

Oregon's Department of Education sent information late Monday evening telling school districts to prepare for "distance learning" until summer break, with a comprehensive guidebook requiring schools to roll out a virtual education model by April 13.

"Today we know there is a very real potential that our students, like in many other states, may not return to school this academic year," ODE Director Colt Gill wrote in a letter to superintendents and principals in the state's 197 school districts.

Gill said the extended school closures would mean schools must move from providing supplemental educational materials to real, virtual learning that would count for instructional hours.

'Unprecedented moment'

Across Oregon, schools have been closed to students since March 16. On March 17, Gov. Kate Brown issued a follow-up executive order, closing schools until April 28, to slow the spread of COVID-19. State officials said that closure could extend through the rest of the year.

During the extended closures, schools were initially advised by ODE that they couldn't provide virtual instruction that would count toward instructional hours, unless the school could guarantee that all students had access to it, in accordance with federal civil rights laws for students.

COLT GILLOn Monday, March 30, Gill acknowledged the rollout of remote learning could be rough for many families. "Of course, education without face-to-face interaction between students and teachers will look and feel different and cannot be fully replicated across a distance. It will not and cannot happen overnight," Gill wrote in the letter to superintendents.

Responding to the state's announcement, Oregon Education Association President John Larson implored the state to recognize that not all students will adapt to online learning, and they shouldn't be punished for it.

"Oregon educators will do what we've always done, work with the resources that we've been given to provide the highest quality education we can for our students," Larson said. "However, we maintain that in this unprecedented moment — where both students and educators are expected to rapidly transition from traditional in-person instruction to distance instruction — that it is crucial that our elected leaders ensure that students aren't penalized for an inability to thrive under these new circumstances. With some students lacking the proper technology, connectivity, resources, or time to fully engage with a distance learning model school districts must acknowledge and incorporate that reality into their Distance Learning for All plans."

Partner with teachers

With its announcement, the state released a Distance Learning for All guidebook, to guide school districts on a timeline for implementing the new remote learning model.

That transition won't be easy, Gill wrote. "The vast majority of Oregon educators have not taught online and some districts have varying levels of experience, capacity, and technology tools. Let's take this head on utilizing our resourcefulness and creativity understanding not all distance education will be online. Meaningful education can be provided through educational materials distributed in packets, via individual and group calls, and other efforts that may be employed to ensure continuity of learning.

Gill told superintendents to picture a typical scenario: A family with a seventh grader and a high school sophomore, each with six or seven different teachers and classes, but only one computer at home.

"We must find ways for their classes to be scheduled in ways they can access all the content," he said.

For many younger students, the pressure will be on parents, Gill said.

"It will be important for parents to know their role to support, including making time outside interactions with their child's teacher to serve as tutors, helping to ensure attentiveness to the instructional time with teachers, providing structure to the daily schedule and helping support connectivity and continuity of technology at home, and more," Gill said. "Primary students going through the rigors of learning to read requires the support of a teacher 'scaffolding the lesson' minute-by-minute to meet the needs and strengths of the student. This will look different within distance learning and we have to find ways to partner teachers and parents to nurture learning within this context."

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