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Suburban and rural school districts across several counties plan a return to class in some limited way within weeks.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Eighth-grade students at Stoller Middle School eat lunch in a packed cafeteria in 2014. School — and not the kind that takes place on a screen — will be back in session in weeks, if it hasn't started already, across the region.

Portland Public Schools is planning on bringing some students back into school buildings beginning as soon as Monday, Jan. 25, staring with 16 elementary schools and two high schools.

"We're aiming for a start of Jan. 25," said Shawn Bird, chief of schools.

The 16 elementary schools will focus on the youngest students, those in kindergarten through 3rd grade, district officials said at a school board meeting Tuesday Jan. 12. The first schools will be ones with child care on-site and schools where more students struggle to achieve.

The decision is up to PPS. A few days before Christmas, Gov. Kate Brown made her school reopening rules optional, though districts still must follow 164 safety rules. The governor has encouraged local districts to aim for a mid-February reopening, especially for younger learners, though new guidelines that will be announced Jan. 19 may alter the situation.

Nevertheless, a growing number of the region's administrators are pushing ahead — even into January — or have already begun in-person classes. Every plan is different, but most aim to put the smallest students back in class first.

In Clackamas County, the 600-student Colton School District began limited in-person learning after rolling out a safety plan in November. Hillsboro School District launched limited in-person teaching for three cohorts of students with special needs and early learners on Jan. 11. In-person instruction will be available to students at all Hillsboro schools by mid-February.

With just 1,200 students, Corbett School District will crack open schoolhouse doors, just a little bit, on Jan. 25, when limited in-person instruction will allow 50 students back into buildings, divided into six groups.

"We will use the gyms and commons for these sessions to allow for ventilation and distancing," said Corbett interim Superintendent Dan Wold. "And, since we want to be overcautious with student and staff safety, we are doing two sessions on each of three days, to allow for small cohorts on buses and adequate cleaning time between sessions."

PMG FILE PHOTO - Students sit at their desks in a local school.

'We can do this safely'

Dates are still a bit fuzzy in Newberg, but school leaders say a select handful of groups will return to the classroom, with masks and social distancing, in January as well. Instead of focusing on younger grades, the priority will be those at Newberg High School attending Tiger Manufacturing classes, as well as middle and high schoolers who need extra academic help.

"Different schools in the district are working on this at a different pace," said district spokesman Gregg Koskela. "There are general criteria, which is what students are at higher risk or who need additional support."

Molalla River school district students will return on Feb. 1, for kindergarteners and first graders. Grades second and third return Feb. 8, followed by fourth and fifth on Feb. 22. All remaining grades are expected in class by early March.

Lake Oswego will unlock its school doors soon after, on Feb. 4, but only for kindergarteners. First graders will arrive the following week, with all elementary age students back at their desks by Feb. 25.

"On one hand, we're really excited to welcome students and staff back into buildings," Lake Oswego Superintendent Lora de la Cruz said. "I would say what I'm feeling more than anything is very pensive."

Next up, Feb. 8 will be a momentous day for students in the Canby and in the West Linn-Wilsonville District. In West Linn-Wilsonville, just kindergarteners will begin on that date, while Canby will return K-3 for hybrid learning.

Canby will take a wait-and-see approach before returning higher grades. West Linn-Wilsonville will have all students through fifth grade at their seats by March 3.

"I want to see kids in school faster than what this timeline shows," said board member Dylan Hydes. "I think the latest science says that we can do this safely."

In Prineville, younger students are already back in class, and Crook County School District Superintendent Sara Johnson has announced the possibility of going full time during the second semester, which begins Jan. 26.

Unions want assurances

Elsewhere in Multnomah County, Gresham-Barlow has set no date for a return to schools, though athletes are allowed on outdoor fields for non-team training. Centennial Superintendent Paul Coakley said, "Multnomah County is far from meeting the advisory metric for moving to return to in-person instruction. Therefore, the Centennial School District will continue in comprehensive distance learning for the foreseeable future."

For older students in Beaverton, the situation is "impossible," according to a district announcement; it has made no firm commitment for younger learners either. "Because middle and high school students have several classes and are exposed to more students, in-person instruction under current required safety protocols remains impossible," according to a district statement last week.

On Jan. 7, teachers' unions at Oregon's five largest school districts — including Beaverton, which serves more than 40,000 students in Washington County — sent a letter to Brown asking her to ensure vaccines would be available to protect educators from COVID-19 by the time schools reopen for in-person learning.

Reporters Teresa Carson, Max Egener, Asia Alvarez Zeller, Kristen Wohlers, Ryan Clarke and Editors Jason Chaney and Mark Miller contributed to this story.

Zane Sparling
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