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Woodburn School District is examining a hybrid model of instruction for re-entry, while a teachers' vote favors distance learning

PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Woodburn School District Superintendent Oscar Gilson began his new post on July 1, hitting the ground running amid COVID-19 adjustments and uncertain, changing state mandates.While no one is certain how the 2020-21 school year will begin, one thing is certain — Woodburn teachers are leery about starting in-person teaching too soon.

In a vote held July 14 by members of the Woodburn Education Association, 81.3% of the educators supported starting the school year with a 100% distance-learning model. That vote was held as Woodburn School District was simultaneously examining a plan for a hybrid model.

WEA President Kathy Kuftin said in a news release that educators expressed concerns about the safety of students and staff amid the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for their support of distance learning. They also are doubtful that district facilities provide adequate spacing and ventilation in classrooms for safety, and they were usure about access to appropriate personal protective equipment.

During the July 14 Woodburn School District Board meeting, district staff and board members discussed various features of a hybrid model for reentry into the school year. That model would divide students into two cohort groups; each group would spend two weekdays at school for in-person learning, while the balance of the week is spent distance learning.

COURTESY: WOODBURN SCHOOL DISTRICT - Table illustrates Woodburn School Districts hybrid reentry plan, which would divide students into two cohorts. Each cohort would attend school two days per week.

"We, of course, are painfully aware that our students long to go back to school, to see their teachers, to reunite with their friends, and to resume their learning experiences. We as educators share these same sentiments," WEA Vice President Tony Salm wrote in a statement to the school board. "In addition, we fully understand the inherent limitations of distance learning.

"However, we cannot in good conscience contemplate a scenario that so clearly puts the health and safety of our students, our students' families, as well as our colleagues and support staff, at risk."

WSD Superintendent Oscar Gilson assembled three separate groups of educators and administrators who evaluated several different reentry scenarios, including the hybrid. He said any plan likely will be adjusted, especially as the pandemic landscape shifts. Oregon Health Authority began seeing record numbers of cases of positive and presumptive cases emerge through the first two weeks of July.

"As COVID-19 continues to spread across Oregon, it has become clear that school this fall will not look like a normal year," Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said on Thursday. "Many, if not most Oregon students are in districts that will focus on online distance learning or have a hybrid model of some online education and some in-person classroom time.

"I am pushing school officials to make sure underserved and marginalized students — our kids of color and our low-income kids — get the support and opportunities they need. We cannot allow our response to this pandemic to increase racial disparities in educational outcomes."

Gilson said that also is one of the district's challenges, ensuring that the distance-learning arena has a level playing field. That means access must be available for all students with a special focus on furnishing access to families with limited resources.

Other challenges of primary focus for the district include situating adequate space for social distancing and the overall safety of students, teachers and staff.

Kuftin noted that WEA surveyed teachers in March about health risks, and 24% indicated that they have at least one condition placing them in a high-risk category, per accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Moreover, 37% reported that they live with someone who is high-risk, and 51% reported that they are aware of students in their classrooms who have conditions placing them at risk for complications.

OHA data show variations of COVID-19's spread in Oregon counties. Brown's office is examining specific metrics to provide an outline for local decisions about when or whether to shift from in-person to remote instruction during the school year.

The governor's office has convened with the Healthy Schools Reopening Council and discussed specific needs for students who enter school buildings and the educators who serve them; safety measures to limit the spread of the disease, including face coverings; volume of students in classrooms; and strategies for transportation with school bus capacity limited by physical distancing.

In addition, the council discussed expanded training and support for educators, ensuring all students have ways to access learning and critical support services under hybrid and comprehensive distance learning models, and providing more flexibility for a longer school year. The council included student representatives who provided examples of how schools and educators are vital to student mental health and well-being, and how it is difficult to maintain that support when school buildings are closed.

Regardless of how the reentry unfolds, Gilson said there is an overarching goal to keep in mind.

"We need to figure out how to continue to educate our kids," he said.


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