Oregon Trail and Estacada school district administration lead push for reopening with restrictions amid COVID-19 pandemic

COURTESY PHOTO: AMANDA KIRKPATRICK - Skyler and Saige Kirkpatrick are excited to learn alongside their classmates as the Estacada School District moves to hybrid learning.

When Estacada kindergarteners began returning to the classroom earlier this week, many students were meeting each other in-person for the first time.

"I have kids ask, 'am I going to see so-and-so?' They're so excited," Clackamas River Elementary teacher Shellie Adams said prior to the district's kindergarten and first grade students moving to hybrid learning on Monday, Jan. 25. "I can't wait for them to see each other."

Schools got new reopening rules Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 19, that eased guidelines enough to allow elementary school students in the metropolitan area to get back to school buildings.

The parameters around COVID-19 infection rates were somewhat relaxed, especially for the youngest students, based on Harvard Global Health Institute recommendations. These metrics are also being used by schools in Washington and Colorado. In late December, Gov. Kate Brown announced that the infection rate metrics were advisory only and districts had the ultimate decision on when to reopen.

Brown's Dec. 23 announcement said the goal of the new policy is "putting more school districts on track to return students to in-person instruction, especially elementary students, by Feb. 15."

The latest metrics detail that schools can welcome back elementary students if there are fewer than 350 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people averaging over 14 days and the test positivity rate is less than 10%.

To reopen, districts still have to follow 164 pandemic safety rules, including "diligent entry screening," 35 square feet of space per person in the classroom, 6 feet of space between people and a limit on how many people a student could interact with during a school day.

COURTESY PHOTO: AMANDA KIRKPATRICK - Estacada kindergartener Skyler Kirkpatrick has been learning from home for the majority of the school year.

Estacada eases into reopening

The Estacada School District is focusing on bringing elementary school students back into the classrooom. Beginning Monday, Feb. 8, second through fifth grade families will have the option of joining kindergarten and first graders in hybrid learning.

Superintendent Ryan Carpenter said he is confident in the district's ability to begin safely offering hybrid learning.

"We believe we're ready to open," Carpenter said. "Over time, we've had students in our schools, and we've had employees in our schools, and we've been able to prove we can contain the spread when someone comes onto campus with COVID-19."

Though the current focus is bringing hybrid learning to younger students, some high school students are participating in limited in-person instruction.

"We want to move at a pace that allows us to collect community feedback," Carpenter said.

Students, or their guardians, will be asked to complete a symptom prescreening prior to coming on campus. Face masks and social distancing will be required, and certified nursing assistance will be available for students who develop symptoms of the virus. Students and employees will also participate in contact tracing.

The district initially developed a plan for hybrid learning this summer. On Mondays and Tuesdays, some students will attend in-person classes while others learn online. Then on Wednesdays and Thursdays, the two groups will switch. Students will also have the option of continuing to participate in completely virtual learning.

Adams noted that, particularly for younger students, there are benefits to learning in-person.

"They can learn to solve problems independently. When they're in the classroom, they can't just go ask a parent," she said. "It gives them the chance to practice patience."

Still, teaching in-person during the pandemic has presented several concerns for Adams and her fellow elementary school teachers.

"A lot of kids don't know how to open their lunch box, and I can't even count the number of shoes I tie," she said, noting that both of these would break the required 6 foot distance. "I'll have to teach in the front (of the classroom) and I usually sit on the carpet with them. We have to think about how to keep students 6 feet apart but not ask them to sit in the same spot for the entire day."

Clackamas River students Saige Kirkpatrick, 7, and Skyler Kirkpatrick, 5, are excited to return to the classroom.

"I'm looking forward to playing with all my friends and seeing my teacher," said Saige.

Skyler thinks it will be "cool" to be in the classroom and is excited to see his teacher and classmates.

"Skyler really thrives on interpersonal relationships. We met with (his teacher) Ms. Gaylor at the beginning of the year so he could see who she was. He's really excited to see her and be in-person with her," said his mom, Amanda Kirkpatrick.

Though she was concerned at the beginning of the school year, Amanda said online learning has gone fairly well for both Saige and Skyler.

"The school district has made it really easy and has been really helpful. If we need extra help, teachers are always willing to stay or let us reach out when we need it," she said. "(The best part about being in-person) will be interacting with other peers of their age that aren't their own siblings, and emotionally, getting to step away and be independent from me and their dad, and learn and grow."

She noted that both children understand the importance of COVID-19 safety guidelines.

"One of our best friends is high risk. We've always had to be really careful, so we've explained the virus to them and that you've got to keep your mask on, wash your hands and use hand sanitizer," she said.

PMG PHOTO: EMILY LINDSTRAND - Estacada High School senior Jed Shaver works in a pre-kindergarten class at River Mill Elementary School as a part of the school district's teen mentorship program before the pandemic hit.

Equitable education for Oregon Trail

In the Oregon Trail School District, Superintendent Aaron Bayer has previously expressed concern over how to make distance and hybrid learning equitable, and now those concerns are being considered in how schools in Boring, Sandy and Welches might begin welcoming students back for in-person instruction.

To meet the burgeoning needs of the start of distance learning, the district distributed 1,800 Chromebooks and 350 hotspots in the spring of 2020. Those numbers rose to 2,900 Chromebooks and 750 hotspots with the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year.

"Our tech department has been going the extra mile to make sure families have the connectivity necessary to stay in touch," Bayer explained.

Even with so many devices being handed out and an all-hands-on-deck approach to technical and educational support, some students simply don't learn as well virtually and paper packets without in-person instruction aren't the same. So now, the district is ramping up to get fewer students schooling online, and more back in the classroom, with safety always in mind.

While the district has published its own announcements in recent months explaining its intention to remain in comprehensive distance learning until at least February, staff and administrators have been looking ahead and planning for the inevitable "OK" to reopen for quite some time.

"All of the schools already have signage and stations in place so we can open safely," said Bayer. "There is also PPE for all students and staff."

A team of teachers has also been working on educational videos to help instruct students on how to keep themselves and others safe by distancing, masking and washing their hands. Students were already assigned to cohorts back in September, in preparation for the allowance of in-person instruction.

As of the week of Jan. 11, a minimal number of Sandy High seniors began limited in-person instruction. This small step back toward "normal" learning is aimed to help students deemed at-risk academically. The district began with seniors who are looking at a rougher path toward graduation, and administrators are currently working with parents to assess and identify students at the elementary level who might also be particularly vulnerable to not progressing academically.

About 20 members of the Class of 2021 are currently participating in limited in-person instruction under restrictions that say students can only be in school for two consecutive hours a day and students are only allowed to participate in two separate cohorts.

"(We've started limited in-person) with good success," Bayer said. "We haven't had any known cases in our students or the school. For our seniors, this is the last step until they enter the world of adulthood. The (importance of) their grades and credits on their abilities to find success out there in the real world was critical to us. That's why we moved forward with our seniors with limited in-person instruction at this time: to give them plenty of runway to recover any credits and/or get advanced in credits so that they weren't going to be in jeopardy (of not graduating)."

Regardless of this development, Bayer says the district will not move to hybrid until at least next semester, which begins Feb. 2. A hard date for starting hybrid learning has yet to be set. He intends to take the district's blueprint for reentry before the school board during a board workshop at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28. Details about how the public can view that meeting will be available online

"We're really going to have a larger conversation on the 28th," Bayer explained.

Unions consider changes

In smaller, rural districts like Estacada and Oregon Trail, communication between districts and local unions is crucial, especially in times like these.

"We do have a really solid relationship with our local (union)," said Bayer. "We continue to work with them on a weekly basis — sometimes meeting twice weekly."

At the Jan. 12 meeting of the Oregon Trail School Board of Directors, Wy'East Education Association (WEA) President Alison Conner read a statement of the union's position on reopening. She noted the "good will and collaboration," which has transpired between the union and its district representatives, but also the union's opposition to the current push to reopen.

"We, the Wy'East Education Association, want nothing more than to be back in-person with our students. We know schools function best when educators and students are together," Conner said. "After months of tireless work to create and successfully implement comprehensive distance learning, with administration of the vaccine in the near future, and with the test positivity rate in our country currently so high, we assert that now is not the time to return to in-person instruction."

WEA asked that the district administration and/or the Oregon Trail School Board continue with comprehensive distance learning until each employee is fully inoculated or the reopening metrics are met. The union also asked that vaccine clinics be made available to employees through collaboration between the district and the local health authority.

Oregon has begun administering the COVID-19 vaccine to select essential workers, and on Dec. 22, the state announced that school employees would be next priority.

During a Facebook Live event on Wednesday, Jan. 20, Carpenter said some of the district's employees may be able to begin receiving the vaccine on Sunday, Jan. 24, though the situation was an evolving one.

"I will honestly and transparently tell you there is still a lot changing at the state level," he said. "What I may say today could change tomorrow."

He noted that the district's hybrid reopening would be contingent on following safety metrics rather than the distribution of the vaccine.

Estacada High School teacher Heather Treanor, president of the Estacada Education Association, said that there have been mixed reactions among members about reopening.

"All teachers want to go back, but we want to do it safely," she said. "There's tension between how to return but also doing it as safely as possible."

Many members of the union had expressed concern about returning to the classroom prior to receiving the vaccine.

"Once teachers are able to get the vaccine, I think we'll see a lot more excitement," Treanor said.

She added that she's happy the school district has been adhering to COVID-19 safety metrics.

"I have to give a shout out to the district for following the metrics and realizing that science is important," she said.

It is unclear when Oregon Trail educators may begin receiving inoculations for the COVID-19 virus, but Bayer has assured all precautions are being and will be taken to ensure student and staff safety upon return to in-person instruction. Right now, Bayer explains, one of the district's biggest concerns in creating its plan for reentry is balancing the comfort of teachers with the need of students for in-person learning.

"I think the challenges with reopening schools are consistent across school districts," Bayer explained. "It's the unknown that poses the greatest challenge."

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