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Superintendent Heather Cordie made the announcement of a 'comprehensive distance learning' model Tuesday.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Fifth-grade teacher Marika Conrad welcomes students at the old J. Clyde Hopkins Elementary School for the start of the 2013-14 school year. The school is now known as Hawks Ridge Elementary School.The Sherwood School District won't welcome back students and teachers into its classrooms for the start of the 2020-21 academic year, the district announced Tuesday, July 28.

Complying with a new mandate announced by Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday afternoon, which requires low COVID-19 case counts and positive test rates, Sherwood schools will begin the fall term with a "comprehensive distance learning" model, said Superintendent Heather Cordie in an announcement on the district website.

"Since closing our schools in March, it has been our greatest hope to bring students and staff back together in our buildings. The health and safety of our students and staff are of the utmost importance, and we have carefully attended to state guidance, every step of the way," Cordie said in the announcement.

With case counts and fatalities rising across Oregon — earlier Tuesday, a record 14 new deaths related to COVID-19 were reported by the Oregon Health Authority — state and local officials have sounded doubtful in recent weeks about a full return to schools in September.

Cordie told Sherwood families Tuesday that district officials anticipate keeping the online-only model in place for at least the first nine weeks of the school year.

"We will continue to monitor reopening metrics to determine when students can safely return to our buildings," Cordie added.

The rules rolled out Tuesday call for districts not to offer in-person instruction until they record 10 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents and a positive test rate of 5% or less for three straight weeks. Statewide, the positivity rate must also not exceed 5% in those three weeks.

Read about the new state metrics for reopening schools in this July 28, 2020, story.

The mandate is somewhat more lenient for kindergarten and the first, second and third grades, as Cordie noted.

Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state health officer, said in-person learning is more critical for those younger students.

Under the new rules, those grades can resume in-person instruction if the county has 30 or fewer new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents detected over a seven-day period. However, they would be forced to go back to distance learning if there is a significant uptick in new cases.

Sherwood schools finished the 2019-20 school year with an all-online education model after school districts were forced to shut down campuses in March, as COVID-19 cases began multiplying quickly in Oregon.

Some parents and teachers were critical of the distance learning approach during the spring. Cordie acknowledged that criticism in her statement Tuesday.

"We know from stakeholder feedback that some families have concerns about the effectiveness of distance learning, based on their experiences this past spring," Cordie wrote. "Moving rapidly into a distance learning environment last spring posed significant challenges, as we had little time to prepare and even less time to provide much needed professional development for staff. With this afternoon's release of the state's reopening metrics, we once again face that challenge — yet with the gift of some additional time, we are prepared to implement changes to improve this model."

Like many school districts, the Sherwood School District had previously communicated plans for a so-called hybrid model of education once in-person instruction resumes. Under that model, students could learn in classrooms for part of the week, then spend the rest of the week doing homework or distance learning from outside school.

Cordie said district staff are continuing to work on hybrid approaches to learning, with the expectation that once Sherwood schools are able to bring students back through their doors, such a model will be in place.

Several Sherwood schools have been reconfigured for the 2020-21 school year. Most notably, Sherwood High School has moved to a brand-new campus at 18800 S.W. Haide Road. The former Sherwood High School building at 16956 S.W. Meinecke Road has been converted into a middle school campus.

However, those new or reconfigured campuses won't be able to welcome students back until the state, county and district give the green light.

"While we feel great disappointment that our 2020-21 school year will not start with our students and staff back in the classrooms — including in our new high school and completed Transformation schools — today's announcement allows us to move forward with a full focus on providing our students with safe, high quality instruction this fall," Cordie concluded.

By Mark Miller
Washington County Editor
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