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Oregon Trail, Estacada, Gresham area districts prepare for safe return to school

PMG FILE PHOTO - Oregon Trail Schools' students will be expected to wear masks, but the district says it won't pursue punitive actions against those who do not comply.As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, in classrooms one thing will look the same: students, teachers and visitors will continue to wear face masks.  

On Thursday, July 29, Gov. Kate Brown ordered the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education to create a rule requiring masks for anyone inside school buildings.  

Previously, the Center for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended indoor masking, particularly since a vaccine for those 12 and younger has not yet been approved.  

Prior to Brown's announcement, Sandy's Oregon Trail School District and the Estacada School District had released their own safety plans for the upcoming year, which needed to be updated in light of Brown's announcement.  

The Reynolds School District took guidance from the ODE Resiliency Framework last school year. The district will use the updated version in the 2021-22 school year.    

In both Estacada and Oregon Trail, face masks were recommended, but not required, particularly for those who had not received the COVID-19 vaccine.  

Estacada School District Superintendent Ryan Carpenter wrote in a post on Facebook that district leaders were "surprised" to learn about the latest mask mandate "after (Gov. Brown) announced in late June that all future decisions about COVID-19 protocols would be decided at local levels."  

 COURTESY PHOTO: ESTACADA SCHOOL DISTRICT - Estacada Elementary school students and staff wore masks and followed social distancing protocols during the first day of in person learning for the 2020-21 school year.


Schools pivot plans   

Prior to the mask mandate, Estacada schools had released safety protocols for the 2021-22 school year on Tuesday, July 20. To facilitate social distancing, three feet of space will be kept between individuals whenever possible, and masks will be required on school buses. 

After a draft of the plan was completed, it was sent out to the district's leadership team, four committees of staff members and a committee of parents. Once the plan had been updated to reflect feedback from those groups, it was sent to all parents and employees, who were also able to share feedback.  

"It was a very comprehensive process, and we tried to work as swiftly as possible so that families could have as much advanced notification as possible so they could visualize what schools would look like next year," said Carpenter. "We know there's a lot of families who are going to make their school decision based on masks and safety protocols, and so we wanted to provide as much time as possible to allow families to make the best choice for them and their family." 

Carpenter estimated that during the plan's formative process, they received feedback from 300 families.  

"It was overwhelmingly supportive of not wearing face masks in our schools," he said, estimating that 70% of comments were in favor of not requiring masks.   

After Gov. Brown's mask mandate was announced, Carpenter noted that many community members expressed dissatisfaction.   

"In the past few days parents, teachers, support staff, and community members have emailed me sharing their frustration in this decision and many have asked me to not follow/nor observe the Governor's orders. As your superintendent, I took an oath to enforce all policies of the Estacada School District which includes following federal and state law. I, nor the Board of Directors, will knowingly and/or willingly violate state orders," Carpenter wrote in a Facebook post.  

He noted that the situation provided an opportunity to model behavior for students.  

"The lesson is: Even if we receive an outcome that we do not desire, it does not give us reason to break rules, violate policy, compromise our values, or diminish the quality of service we are working so hard to develop," he wrote. "That being said, both the School Board of Directors and I will continue to advocate, lobby and stand up for Estacada's values to retain local control and decision-making that is in the best interest of our community and the Estacada School District."  

During a meeting on Thursday, Aug. 12, the Estacada School Board unanimously passed a resolution advocating for local control regarding face masks and other COVID-19 safety guidelines.

"This is not a declaration to not have masks required in schools. This is a declaration to say that that decision should be made at the local level," said Estacada School Board Chair Ken Riedel. "We are not saying yes or no. We're saying it should be our division to make, not a statewide decision to be made from somebody who has no connection to our community."

With the mandate, the Oregon Trail district says it will comply with requirements, but also make accommodations for students where possible.   

"We are obligated to comply with the mandate," said Superintendent Aaron Bayer. "If a child has a medical need, disability or other health-related concern that impacts face coverings, we will not deny any student access to their education and we will refrain from implementing punitive consequences as is part of the state's requirements."  

"I don't think this is as straightforward as 'masks, no masks,'" added Bayer. "It's an interesting dynamic to navigate. Our protocols, for all intents and purposes have not changed (compared to the district's previously released fall guidelines for safety)."  

Under the district's 2021-22 school year health protocols, students and drivers will be required to wear a face covering while on buses, and there will be passive visual screening for COVID-19 symptoms as they board. Similar to last year, seating charts will be implemented and students who do exhibit potential symptoms will be seated at the front of the bus then isolated and monitored at school until a guardian can pick them up.   

Buses, common spaces, restrooms and classrooms will be cleaned and sanitized regularly, with buses disinfected between each route.  

All Oregon Trail schools have made sure each building has effective ventilation and airflow to minimize transmission, and testing for COVID-19 will be available upon request for students or staff who prove symptomatic or who were potentially exposed to someone who was infected.   

Unlike last year, the schools will be able to serve meals in the cafeterias again, though cohorts and three-foot distancing will still be utilized.  

Throughout the process of preparing to return to in-person schooling this fall, all four districts have consulted their teachers' unions, making sure the whole of their districts are on the same page before students arrive back to classrooms.   

   PMG FILE PHOTO - Students at Hogan Cedars Elementary in Gresham learn while wearing face masks and maintaining social distance.

Teachers weigh in  

Shellie Adams, a kindergarten teacher at Clackamas River Elementary School and secretary of the Estacada Education Association, appreciates the effort that district staff created for teachers and community members to share thoughts on the return-to-school plan.  

"I'm glad they gave us multiple options (to share feedback)," Adams said.  

Adams said she was elated to see the mask mandate because it will allow her students to have "a more authentic kindergarten experience." For example, with the safety provided by masking, her students will be able to move around during carpet time rather than remaining in specific spaces to facilitate social distancing.  

"It's hard to say, 'you're going to sit there, and you're going to sit there, and you're going to sit there," she said, adding that kindergarteners enjoy moving around. "With the extra precautions like masks, we can relax a little bit."  

She noted that her students have adapted to masks well, potentially because they're just starting school and haven't yet been in the classroom without masks.  

"It might surprise some people, but I feel like kindergarten has had the easiest time with masks. Sometimes the students will go to get a drink of water and forget they have a mask on," she said. "There were very few kids who needed to be reminded to keep their masks on. Overall, they did a good job."  

COURTESY PHOTO: ESTACADA SCHOOL DISTRICT - Estacada students wear masks during class.

Adams has not noticed masks having a negative impact on her students' academic or social emotional experiences.  

"We've had conversations about how a mask is just like another piece of clothing or a sports uniform," she said.  

Adams said teachers will support students with masks and other COVID-19 safety protocols as needed.  

"Educators are in the business of kids and kids' well-being, and masks are an important part of safety right now," she added.  

In Sandy, Alison Conner, president of the Wy'East Education Association, said: "The safety of our students is always our top priority."  

"After last year, we know students need this year to have as little disruptions as possible," Conner added. "As the pandemic is not over and many of our students have not yet been vaccinated, we want to proceed with the utmost safety for all."  

The Oregon Trail School District has met with representatives of the WEA weekly, and sometimes more, since the pandemic began, to discuss everything from bell schedules to face coverings to how state mandates will impact the Oregon Trail schools directly.   

"We all understand that irrespective of their personal beliefs, or my personal beliefs, this is the rule," said Bayer of the district's collaboration with the teachers' union.   

PMG FILE PHOTO - A young student at Hogan Cedars Elementary School in Gresham wears a face mask while working in class.

For Lisa Griffith, Walt Morey Middle School teacher and recently elected president of the Reynolds Education Association, the new mandates are key to supporting students.    

"Over here in East (Multnomah) County we have a lot of families that aren't vaccinated yet," Griffith said. "Many students also live in multigenerational homes, meaning their older family members are at high risk of contracting the virus."   

Griffith understands the importance of in-school classes but doesn't want to compromise the health of any students or their families.  

"I think all of our teachers are really struggling," Griffith said. "We know being back is good for (students), but we also want to keep them safe and that is what we are trying to do."   

This struggle isn't new to the teachers in the Reynolds District. Many schools there attempted a hybrid of in-person and virtual classes.   

"Last year we got some practice (with masks) when we went to hybrid teaching," Griffith said. "There has been a lot to get used to, but we adapted."   

Griffith and the Reynolds teacher's union have been working closely with the district to navigate the new protocols. One of their joint tasks is getting transparent masks in the hands of primary grade teachers.   

Griffith said being able to see a teacher's face is important for many younger students' growth.   

"It is really difficult to teach the alphabet when students can't see your mouth," Griffith said.   

Although some of the new mandates aren't ideal, Griffith believes schools can still provide the same level of education while also protecting students. 

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