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Community members sounded off during a virtual school board meeting Monday, Jan. 10.

PMG PHOTO: SCOTT KEITH - Scappoose School District board member Gwynn Klobes hears from parents on distance learning.With an increasing number of schools closing in Portland due to the surge in COVID-19 cases, thoughts easily turn to the possibility of schools closing in Columbia County.

To allay those fears, at least for the moment, Scappoose School District Superintendent Tim Porter said there are no plans to shut schools in his district. He made the comments during the Jan. 10 school board meeting.

Also at the meeting, which was held online, a number of citizens urged the district to keep students in the classrooms.

Parents offered intensely personal stories about how distance learning can be detrimental to a child's health.

Noting that the number of COVID-19 cases have been on a steep increase statewide over the past several days, Porter told board members that since Dec. 30, the district has had 38 staff quarantined either with COVID or due to being a close contact. Twenty-one of those 38 have tested positive for COVID-19.

"As of today, we have 29 of those 38 absent," Porter said. "As you might be able to surmise from that, we have significant staffing issues that we are dealing with on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis."

Porter continued, "We also had a little over 20 percent of our students absent from the high school today, not all due to COVID, but it was a significant increase over what we've been seeing. The bottom line is we're seeing a pretty significant increase in our COVID numbers."

As to whether schools could close, Porter said, "We are doing everything in our power to keep as many students to in-person learning as possible. However, given the number of staff that are having to quarantine, we have had to move a few of our elementary classrooms to comprehensive distance learning."

Responding to board member Branda Jurasek on whether sports could be curtailed by the pandemic, Porter responded, "We have zero plans to pause athletics or extracurricular activities. I know that was a recommendation by the Oregon Department of Education."

The school board heard from several community members, not one of them in favor of a return to comprehensive distance learning.

Kris Anderson, who lives in Scappoose and has a child enrolled at Scappoose High School, said his son struggled so much with distance learning last year, he had difficulty sleeping.

"My child is one that needs and benefits from in-person interaction and instruction," Anderson said. "Any potential return to distance learning and even further disconnection from his friends, staff and teachers would be detrimental to my child."

Shelby Fagan, a resident of Scappoose, echoed Anderson's concerns about the possibility of a return to distance learning.

"Our kids need to be in school," Fagan said. "We can't do distant learning again. We can't continue to put the burden of the state's coronavirus policies on the backs of our children."

Another Scappoose resident, Sharrie Ryan-Bivins, who has two youngsters in the Scappoose School District, talked about how distance learning can affect children who may be affected by conditions such as autism and dyslexia.

"For students who are neurodiverse, online learning can be a very challenging way to learn," Ryan-Bivins said, noting that sitting in front of screen for hours at a time can be very difficult for them.

The school board's newest members reacted to the citizen comments.

"I understand what these parents are saying because, as a teacher, being online is very difficult," said Gwynn Klobes, a University of Portland program director who was elected to the Scappoose school board last year. "It takes all of your energy."

Summer Stutsman-Hoag added, "I want the parents to know we are hearing you. We're seeing signs, we're seeing social media. We are hearing everybody. For me, it's important to uphold what I've promised, and that is to listen to all parents but to make decisions based on the majority of kids."

Noting once again that the district has not had to shut down an entire school, Porter said, "I want to reiterate that if we have the staff that are available, we will keep kids in school. We are doing everything in our power to do that. … It is very important to us to keep kids in school."

Meanwhile, the St. Helens School District late Tuesday, Jan. 11, sent a letter to students, community and staff stating that the district may be approaching a "breaking point" when it comes to the surging number of COVID-19 cases and the "pervasiveness" of the Omicron variant.

The growing COVID numbers, according to the district, have contributed to a dramatic rise in absences of students and staff within the district.

The district says it has been fortunate to avoid distance learning through the use of substitutes and realigning staff daily to cover shortages.

"It is our hope that we do not have to transition any of our schools to remote learning," the letter added, "however, if this happens, the St. Helens School District will continue to make each student a priority while caring for their overall interest.

St. Helens School District officials will be monitoring COVID data points each day to determine the district's ability to safely provide in-person instruction.

The district announced a protocol schedule should a school need to close temporarily. 

Families will be notified via ParentSquare and individual schools will communicate with their families about distributing Chromebooks. The district will be required to provide two days for teachers to transition to remote learning. Meal service will continue for students and families will be able to pick up meals from designated schools and designated times.

The St. Helens School District will share more information with families as it becomes available.

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