With an extended closure of all Oregon schools until at least April 28, the state and its school districts are facing a massive dilemma: how to make up for lost instructional time.
Universities and private schools said they would transition to an online learning model for students, but it's unlikely that Oregon's public schools will do the same.
State and school district officials say that's because not every student can access online content.
Federal laws prohibit districts from teaching in a way that can't be accessed or delivered to all students. Large public school districts like Portland and Beaverton have thousands of students, many on individualized education plans, or IEPs, and a high percentage who don't speak English as a first language. What's more, many students don't have access to digital devices or high-speed internet at home. That makes delivering remote learning challenging for districts.
"Protecting student rights has to be front and center during the conversation about distance learning," Marc Siegel, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Education, told The Oregonian/OregonLive. "You cannot open a brick-and-mortar school in Oregon unless it is accessible to every student in their school district. The same rules apply to an online school."
Districts could receive waivers, meaning they don't have to make up all of the instructional hours, or could roll out alternative learning solutions.
Sue Rieke-Smith is superintendent of Tigard-Tualatin School District in Washington County. She said there are many requirements that can be waived during a federal crisis, like state testing, "but in terms of our students' rights to receive differentiated or specialized instruction regardless of who you are, if you can't guarantee adequate instruction, you are in the federal government's crosshairs."
Rieke-Smith said last week that offering online education has its own challenges and barriers, but even if every student had access to high speed internet and a device, teachers aren't trained on how to teach online, and not all students will receive adequate instruction time with that format.
Instead, Gov. Kate Brown instructed schools to provide "supplemental resources," such as activities, learning exercises or scholastic materials that students can use to keep their skills from regressing during the extended spring break.
In her March 17 executive order, calling for school closures until April 28, Brown instructed districts to "provide learning supports and supplemental services to students and families during the closure period, including meals and child care."
"We're providing a number of remote learning resources, but it does not take the place of classroom instruction," said Maureen Wheeler, communications officer for the Beaverton School District. "We don't have an online learning program. There are few, if any public schools, that have something like that."
Some districts that are still providing pre-packaged meals each day to kids also are providing printed work packets for students to take home when they pick up lunch. Other districts are putting materials online.
Portland Public Schools, the state's largest district, has a patchwork of online lessons meant to keep kids engaged while school is out.
Beaverton district officials are updating their recommendations for learning in each grade on a daily basis.
In Lake Oswego, the school district will provide 10 days of learning activities on its website while the district creates a plan for digital learning to take place after spring break.
Lake Oswego School District Director of Communications Mary Kay Larson said these activities are for enrichment purposes and don't count toward instructional hours.
The district is working on a plan to meet Oregon Department of Education's assurances to move to online/remote learning, since online school must meet all requirements of public school. Larson said the hope is to have a plan in place by the end of spring break; the end of the month. Any plan must include assurances for learning, a meal plan and childcare.
"Our families expect more and we want to make good on that," Larson said.
If there's one upside to the lost school days, Micah Johnson and his kids have found it. Johnson watched his boys glide around on scooters and skateboards during a sunny March afternoon. Playing outside with his kids isn't something he can usually do mid-day on a school day, but everything is different now, and will be for weeks to come.
"I like to get out and be busy with the kids," Johnson said Wednesday. "I always feel like I don't have enough time to do that with work and school."
Johnson is an assistant softball coach at Madison High School and recreation coordinator for Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA).
"The bonus has been more family time," Johnson said. "We haven't been going to the parks or jungle gyms or anything … but they're all sort of trying to figure out ways to keep busy. There's always books I want to read with the kids, that we never get to, so we're getting into that a little bit."
The Oregonian/OregonLive contributed reporting to this story as part of a collaborative effort.
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