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Commissioners Martha Schrader, Sonya Fischer hear about struggles felt by kids due to pandemic

SCREENSHOT - YOUTUBE - Commissioner Sonya Fischer (upper right) and Commissioners Martha Schrader (bottom) participate in a listening session hosted by Dylan Blaylock (upper left) of Clackamas County Public and Government Affairs on supporting local children during a pandemic. In a listening session hosted Monday, Oct. 26, Clackamas County Commissioners Martha Schrader and Sonya Fischer heard from local residents that distance learning is posing some tough challenges to working families and students with special needs.

The listening session — intended to be a time for any county resident to give feedback or voice concern over how the pandemic is affecting local kids — was mostly spent hearing from Zoom callers and emailers explaining how comprehensive distance learning is failing their children.

Despite highlighting the fact that the Board of County Commissioners has no authority over local school districts and their decision to continue distance learning as COVID-19 continues to spread and case counts top record highs, a majority of the comments received by Fischer and Schrader Monday evening focused on finding options for parents to choose in-person learning.

Perhaps the most moving part of the listening session was when Carrie Erickson from Estacada told the commissioners that one of her three children is a 6-year-old boy with Down syndrome who is really struggling to connect with his distance learning.

"He's falling farther and farther behind; he hasn't seen any of his friends. It's just really hard," Erickson said through tears. "It's taken a toll on our family really bad."

Fischer — who has a daughter with Angelman syndrome — said she understands exactly how Erickson is feeling right now, and that she knows one of the biggest benefits of in-person learning for special needs students is the socialization they get from daily interaction and from observing their peers.

"I know for my daughter the most education that she got at school was just learning how to function in the world, and to be socialized and to connect with other children," she said. "My heart is there with you."

One caller who identified herself as Valerie Lee said she and her husband both work full time with four kids — a high schooler, middle schooler and two elementary school children — currently in distance learning.

According to Lee, she's lucky to be able to work from home while assisting her kids with distance learning, but it's taken a toll on her children's mental health.

"The ones that are having the hardest time are my high schooler and my middle schooler," she said. "My high schooler, she was a very motivated kid and wanted to graduate with honors. She went from last year, really caring about school and wanting to do her best. Now we have her in counseling because she can't handle online school."

Lee said that her daughter is falling behind, and her middle school child is losing interest due to a lack of connection with educators and peers.

Lee questioned why bars, restaurants and other businesses could open, and yet schools remain closed without any sense of being prioritized.

An emailer named Michelle from Oak Grove argued that due to spikes in COVID-19 numbers seen in the metro region and across the state, schools can't open and are unlikely to soon as winter approaches.

"Remote learning is hard on the students and the family, but we are in a crazy situation, and teachers are doing their best. To pretend reopening in person is an option is disrespectful to them," Michelle said. "Yes we can improve on the online experience, and teachers should have more time and training to do that."

Another caller who was unidentified said that she believes teachers should be considered frontline workers like grocery-store workers. The caller also thought teachers who opted out of the hybrid learning model, where some students attend in-person and others attend virtually, shouldn't have a say in the discussion around when all students return to the classroom.

Kelly in Oregon City emailed in telling the commissioners that she has two daughters currently navigating distance learning while they're at daycare, and the cost of childcare for them has tripled due to this.

"Both my husband and I work full time and cannot work from home. This model is not working for us as a family, and we are struggling financially, mentally and emotionally," Kelly wrote.

One caller who identified himself as RCA asked the commissioners how the county could use resources to "pick up some of the slack" to help local kids.

According to Schrader, the county is trying to find some solutions to helping local families with the rising cost of childcare. She also said that before the pandemic the county was poised to help take on some after-school programming, and there might be opportunities to collaborate with local service providers to add additional capacity and remove a small amount of the childcare burden off the shoulders of working families.

Both county commissioners had little to offer most of callers and emailers who chimed in to talk about the struggles of distance learning other than expressing their sympathy for the challenges and repercussions this pandemic is putting on both parents and kids, in particular.

In closing, both Schrader and Fischer thanked all those who participated and shared their experience of how the pandemic is impacting local children.

Fischer said that what continues to trouble her most is that we've collectively been in this pandemic for seven months, and she would love to believe that it's going to be over quickly, but she doesn't know that we will.

"I'm hoping that we can somehow figure out a different way through and encourage our leaders to problem solve a way to provide small learning pods that could happen so kids can learn safely," Fischer said.

Schrader — who at one point lost connection and had to log back into the listening session — pointed out how frustrating technology can be at times, and empathized with those at home who are also dealing with those frustrations on a day-to-day basis.

"This pandemic is something that I never thought that we would experience in my lifetime, and how we navigate through it as a county and as a state is really going to test our mettle," Schrader said. "I appreciate everybody that has spoken to us tonight. We're really trying as a commission to listen to our constituents so we can help solve these issues and not be deaf to what we need to be doing with our policies."

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