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A group of protesters says online learning is a failure and it is safe to go back to in-person learning.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - A group of parents and students rallied for in-person learning on Wednesday, Feb. 24.

Naomi Haring is hurtling toward the end of her freshman at Barlow High School, but she has never taken a class in the Barlow building. She joined a clutch of people at the administrative offices of the Gresham-Barlow School District this week, calling for schools to reopen buildings for in-person classes.

"We're not being effectively educated online. It's not possible to get a good education and be prepared for college," she said at the afternoon rally Wednesday, Feb. 24.

"Our mental health is going down really fast. It's taken a big impact on students of all ages," she added.

Her friend Mya Atkins, a seventh-grader at West Orient Middle School, said "I want to go back to school. It's hard to learn on a screen every single second of every single day. I want to see my friends."

Mya's mom, Jessica Atkins, said the group was "here raising awareness that we need our schools open for all students. Online school is not a success."

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Mya Atkins and Naomi Haring both agreed that online education isn't working for them and want to head back to school buildings to learn in-person and be with their friends. Organized by the East County Chapter of Open Schools USA, the group said in a pre-rally statement that it "believes that choice in education should be offered to all East County students."

The group said most East County schools are only offering comprehensive distance learning (CDL), with no option for in-person learning.

"It has been widely recognized, including by Oregon Governor Kate Brown and the CDC, that schools can safely offer in-person learning," the group said.

Most students in public schools in Oregon have been attending school remotely in so-called comprehensive distance learning since March of last year. On Jan. 19, the state loosened rules about school buildings reopening, leaving the decision up to the districts.

Leslie Ricker, the chapter founder, said in a statement that "CDL is failing so many kids and with no immediate plans to return to in-person learning, we can't ignore the negative effects of CDL any longer. We are asking East County school districts to offer choice and immediately offer an in-person learning option for those who would choose it."

Ricker said the group also recognizes "the importance of sports in school engagement as well as college and scholarship opportunities, and we ask that East County districts participate in sports to the greatest extent allowed by the state."

The group acknowledges that this spring may be limited to hybrid learning but wanted to make sure the return to school in the fall is a regular, full five days per week.

"Hybrid is not an accessible nor stable option, especially for working families, and we expect East County school districts to make better use of taxpayer money and provide five days of in-person learning a week," said Ricker, who has four children attending Corbett schools.

To reopen buildings, the state requires schools to follow more than 160 pandemic safety guidelines. Students must have at least 35 square feet of space each, and everyone must be masked and stay 6 feet apart. Students can only come in contact with 100 or fewer people per week in school.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Students are nearing the one year anniversary of learning at home. One option for schools is to open buildings to a very small number of students under a plan called limited in-person instruction (LIPI).

The other option is hybrid learning. That opens buildings to all students who want to come back, but in shifts.

In hybrid, half the students are in buildings while the other half continue to learn online, then the groups swap places. Some have proposed morning and afternoon hybrid shifts, while others are considering a two-days per week arrangement.

Employee unions have been pushing back against reopening until all staff has had the opportunity to be vaccinated and the schools have sufficient safety protocols in place.

In East Multnomah County, only the tiny Corbett School District has started more expansive in-person hybrid model.

Gresham-Barlow School District has announced it will begin offering limited in-person instruction the first week in March. Students who will be offered LIPI are those who have struggled the most under comprehensive distance learning, such as special education students or recently-arrived students learning English.

Gresham-Barlow will also begin playing football in a truncated spring season.

Gresham-Barlow Superintendent Katrise Perera has said the district will reopen "as fast as we can and as slow as we must."

Reynolds School Districts said it will start LIPI for high school students beginning the first week of March and also plans to participate in sports.

Reynolds Superintendent Danna Diaz said via email that "We are working diligently to get our students back into our school buildings during this global pandemic. District administration has been negotiating with each of our bargaining units to agree upon a limited in-person instruction plan."

Centennial School District has said it won't consider bringing students back until after March 26.

The state's largest district, Portland Public Schools, is planning on bringing the youngest students back to buildings in the hybrid model in early April.

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