Health & Education

Districts, Tribe weighing school re-opening options

07.30.2020 Danielle Frost Education, State government
Graphic by Samuel Briggs III/Smoke Signals


By Danielle Frost

Smoke Signals staff writer

With the start of school just around the corner, district leaders are grappling with how to best educate children while keeping everyone safe.

School leaders predominantly favor a hybrid model of both in-person and virtual learning, which allows them to switch gears if needed due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and the state’s evolving efforts to flatten the curve.

However, updated guidance from the state is resulting in an all-online experience for at least the first few weeks or months of school.

On Tuesday, July 28, the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education released updated metrics that will determine if schools can return to in-person instruction in the fall, with certain exceptions.

Each school district will determine the decision based on COVID-19 numbers in the county in which it is located in addition to overall state numbers. If a district serves students in multiple counties, case rates and positive numbers must be considered for each county.

Currently, county cases must be below 10 per 100,000 people in the past seven days for three weeks, and positive test results must be less than 5 percent in the preceding seven days for three weeks at both the county and state levels.

Exceptions for students in kindergarten through third grade, remote and rural school districts with fewer than 100 students, students with disabilities and programs such as career technical education will be made provided there is not active COVID-19 school community spread. Also, county cases must be below 30 per 100,000 people in the past seven days for three weeks, and positive test results countywide must be less than 5 percent in the preceding seven days for three weeks.

At a news conference discussing the new requirements, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced she would earmark $28 million to be distributed through the Emergency Education Relief Fund to enhance online learning and technology for schools.

 The Oregon Department of Education’s “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidance allows schools to utilize three instructional models: on-site, distance learning or a combination of both. However, Director Colt Gill noted during the July 28 news conference that in the six weeks since it was written, coronavirus case numbers in Oregon have risen steadily.

The guidance will continue to be updated based on COVID-19 effects, input from educators and families, review of equity for students, efforts in other countries and guidance from Brown’s Heathy Schools Reopening Council. The final update before classes begin will be issued on Tuesday, Aug. 11.

When in-person classes resume, the Department of Education has mandated mask wearing for all kindergarten through high school students and staff. Earlier versions of the return-to-school plan recommended, but did not require, face coverings for students, or for staff to wear face coverings in all circumstances.

“The new requirement is in response to mounting evidence that face coverings are effective in mitigating the spread of COVID-19,” the department stated in a press release.

To help school districts meet the requirement, the Department of Education will distribute 5 million face coverings to school districts during the next few weeks. These are not considered medical-grade masks. 

All school districts are required to make operational plans available on their websites and submit the link to the department no later than Monday, Aug. 17.


Willamina plans

A majority of Grand Ronde Tribal students in preschool through 12th grade attend school either on the Tribal campus or at Willamina, Sheridan, McMinnville or Salem-Keizer school districts, with the highest percentage attending Willamina schools.

Willamina Superintendent Carrie Zimbrick is in the process of creating a re-entry plan with a team of teachers, administrators, facility supervisor, nutrition supervisor, transportation representative, Tribal Education Manager Angela Fasana and parents.

The group conducted a parent survey and received 430 responses out of 535 total households.

“We were really pleased with the results and plan to complete our plan in early August and have it submitted prior to the deadline required by the Oregon Department of Education,” Zimbrick said.

Originally, the district was planning a hybrid model, but the updated metrics have required a switch to a fully online model to begin the school year.

In a letter to families, Zimbrick said that bringing children onsite was a priority for the community and staff, and the hybrid plan does that while safely meeting the physical distancing requirements and student restrictions.

“Unfortunately our plan must shift to short-term distance learning to begin the school year,” she said. “The OHA and ODE recently established COVID-related metrics to determine when Oregon school districts can re-open to onsite instruction. In order to safely open to onsite instruction, the Willamina School District must meet the metrics for both Yamhill and Polk counties as well as a 5 percent or less test positivity rate for the state. The new metric calls for maintaining 10 or less cases per 100,000 people for three weeks and a test positivity rate of 5 percent or less for three weeks. Currently, Yamhill County is at 39.2 cases per 100,000 and Polk County is at 47.6 cases per 100,000.”

The district has a projected start date of Tuesday, Sept.15.

“We do have some time to see those numbers decrease, but meeting the three-week standard may not be realistic,” Zimbrick said. “We all believe it is important to see students to the greatest extent possible: To provide academic support, social and emotional support, and to be perfectly honest, we miss our kids. … Once we meet the criteria our short-term distance model will shift back to the hybrid model and students may return to campus.”   

The district’s hybrid model has students attending in-person either in the morning or afternoon, with Monday used for preparations for distance learning. The district also will try to group families together in scheduling. The second option is for students to continue full-time online learning, where they will work completely from home while receiving support services from the district.


Grand Ronde plans

On the Grand Ronde campus, the Early Childhood Education program, which serves preschool-aged students, is developing a re-opening plan. It restricts class sizes, keeps children and staff separate in groups, and includes extensive disinfecting and daily health screening for children and staff.

All staff will be required to wear masks and face shields. Students will not be required to wear masks, which is in alignment with guidance from the Early Learning Division, Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority, Early Childhood Education Program Manager Angie Blackwell said.

The plan was reviewed by General Manager David Fullerton, Pediatrician Dr. Allison Empey and Executive Director of Health Services Kelly Rowe, and the program’s Policy Council.

“Our first day of school was set for (Thursday) Sept. 10, but will be dependent on the trend in (COVID-19) cases and is subject to postponement,” Blackwell said. “If we are not able to open physically, we will continue to offer distance learning opportunities via Google Classroom, Zoom and Facebook, just as we are doing throughout the summer. Likewise, if we open and then have to close again, we will revert back to distance learning.”

Chinuk Language Program Manager Ali Holsclaw has been working with Blackwell to develop a re-opening plan for its early childhood program. The opening date, distance learning plans and mask requirements are the same.

The Chinuk kindergarten through fourth-grade program is currently working on options with guidance from the Oregon Department of Education.

“We are currently waiting on Willamina’s finalized re-opening plan in order to really know what we can offer and how,” Holsclaw said. “Our students are enrolled at Willamina as well and usually spend the second half of their school day there. So, once we have their plan we can get to work on ours, but in the meantime we are brainstorming options and looking outside the box to make sure we offer as much as we can to our families.”


Salem-Keizer, other plans

In the Salem-Keizer School District, officials identified students in kindergarten through second grade as needing priority for in-person classes to help them build learning skills. Students in third through 12th grade were set to begin a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning.

However, after the new guidance was released July 28, Superintendent Christy Perry announced that all students will begin the first nine weeks of the school year in comprehensive distance learning.

 “We know this is heartbreaking for those students and families who were counting on in-person learning in September,” Perry said. “This direction from the state prioritizes the safety of our educators, children and families, and community.”

 In October, district leaders will review metrics to establish a timeline to move into blended learning in mid-November.

 This means students in kindergarten through 10th grade will not attend in person until the week of Nov. 16 at the earliest. Juniors and seniors will not attend in person until the second semester at the earliest, which begins on Feb. 2.

Students will attend school on Tuesday and Thursday or Wednesday and Friday, with Monday being used as an additional support day as needed. The district also will continue to offer students a new, comprehensive, fully online learning program called Enhanced Digital and Guided Education.

“The cohort schedule allows for comprehensive isolation and tracing in the event of a COVID-19 case,” a press release stated. “This enables the district to have targeted closures instead of a system-wide shut down.”

The district stated that when creating the plan it focused on recognizing the “disproportionate impact” of the pandemic on communities of color, families experiencing poverty and students with disabilities.

“Administrators are focused on providing students with a safe, personal and rigorous education that still follows the SKPS mission statement during a worldwide pandemic. Just as COVID-19 news is rapidly evolving, so is the SKPS reentry plan.”

Salem-Keizer Public Schools also will implement a later start to the school year. The week of Sept. 8 will be used to establish connections with students and families. Comprehensive distance learning will begin Monday, Sept. 14.

The McMinnville School District was planning for two 2020-21 school options: A hybrid learning opportunity where elementary school students attend school in person full-time, and middle and high school students attend school two days a week and participate in remote learning three days a week. The other option is an all-remote learning model that follows state Department of Education guidelines, including “real time” teaching and learning, and recorded teaching and learning.

However, the district has now transitioned to comprehensive distance learning.

“At this time, we believe this learning model will last through the fall,” the district website stated. “In order to prepare a quality system … the first day for students will be delayed to Monday, Sept. 14. We appreciate the feedback that was provided in the spring in response to the emergency teaching that occurred remotely from March to June. We have used that feedback along with the ODE guidance to create a plan for this fall.”

Sheridan School District Superintendent Dorie Vickery said students will be provided a combination of distance learning and in-person instruction following guidance from the state.

However, given the new requirements and current county case numbers, the district also will need to start the school year with comprehensive distance learning. Vickery posted the information to the district’s Facebook page July 29.

“At this time, Yamhill and Polk counties do not meet the criteria,” it stated. “The Sheridan School District will offer comprehensive distance learning to start the school year. Additionally, there is a level of criteria that allows for providing in-person instruction for kindergarten through third grade and other specialized groups of students. … Currently, Yamhill and Polk counties do not meet that criteria either. If the numbers change over the next few weeks, we will begin the transition process for K-3 in-person instruction and teaching specialized groups of students.”

In the next few weeks, the district will provide more information regarding its comprehensive distance learning model. 

When in-person classes begin, they will be conducted with 36 square feet per person, bringing class sizes to approximately 13 to 15 students in each classroom.   

Currently, school is scheduled to begin Monday, Aug. 31. However, the calendar may be adjusted, pending School Board approval, for a Tuesday, Sept. 8, start date.

“It is my hope that the numbers will improve in both counties as everyone continues to wear face coverings and practice social distancing,” Vickery said. “Thank you for your continued support of Sheridan School District and our community.”

The pandemic also will affect how services are delivered at Chemawa Indian School in Salem. On Monday, July 27, Oregon Public Broadcasting posted an article that the school will be fully remote until at least January 2021. Chemawa has been a residential school for Native American students continually for 140 years.

According to the article, the Bureau of Indian Education intends to fund necessary technology to assist with remote education to Tribal Reservations across the country.


Parental concerns

Tribal member and employee Candi Henry’s daughter is enrolled in the Willamina School District.

“I would like very much for her to be able to attend school this fall. I feel like the classroom setting provides the best learning environment for the majority of students,” she said.

Henry added that she is, however, a “safety first” kind of mom.

“I do not disregard or downplay this virus and the importance of doing my part to keep our family safe and others in the community,” she said. “I think that is very important to all of us to protect our loved ones. I believe our schools care very much about our children as well and will make choices about re-opening based on what is best for the families in our communities.” 

The family, like many others, participated in online schooling to finish the 2019-20 school year.

“It went well other than a few technical glitches,” Henry said. “The teachers did really well at putting it together on very short notice. If online schooling is what is offered for the fall, our family will gladly participate and be grateful for the teachers’ continued efforts in providing an education for all students.”

Ramona Quenelle, the Tribe’s Veterans’ Services Officer, has six children ranging in ages from 4 to 17. Switching from classroom learning to all-online has been a challenge at times, especially with herself and her husband both employed full-time.

“I am willing to wait until the COVID numbers go down and I feel safe about sending my children back to school,” she said. “However, during the shutdown it was very stressful. Even though the kids were doing online learning, the amount of work there was to do each day required at least a half day of instruction just to keep up with all of the subjects. If there isn’t a parent to lead, it’s a mess.”

Her three youngest children participate in the Chinuk Immersion Program in Grand Ronde and attend Willamina Elementary School. Two of the older children attend Willamina High School.

Grand Ronde, like many rural areas, has scant access to child care, particularly since the pandemic began. Before that, parents often relied on family members or the Tribe’s Youth Education Department after-school and summer programs to help keep their children safe and occupied.

“If my older children have to go back to school physically, but the little kids don’t, that would put me in a situation where I have no child care, which will impact my work and my job,” Quenelle said.

The Tribe is in the process of creating a child care stipend, a move that was announced Wednesday, July 22, during a Facebook Live event. However, the details have not yet been finalized.

“There is no better time than now to take care of child care,” Tribal Council member Michael Langley said. “We know schools will face challenges and kids will be home part-time. In many families, both parents also work full-time. We want to help them.”

Quenelle noted that the part-day, in-person learning option Willamina is considering has left her with questions about student safety.       

 “I’m not sure if having the kids attend school three hours a day, every day will expose them to just as much risk as if they were attending full-time, so I’m not sure it makes sense,” she said.

Quenelle gave examples of potentially cramped buses, and the congestion at entry and exit points.  

“This is an unfortunate situation all the way around. Trying to keep positive has been very beneficial though. And, enjoying the time with my family has been priceless.”

Her youngest children are missing their friends, teachers and activities. Her high school students miss the social aspects of in-person learning. Quenelle’s oldest daughter, Corina, also was unable to work regularly at her part-time job until recently due to the state shutdown.

“Another thing that really impacts the kids is missing out on their summer,” Quenelle said. “The Youth Education Program has a great summer program with so many activities and things to do. They didn’t get to do any of the cultural events such as Canoe Journey and now with all the powwows canceled, it has been like a huge vacuum sucking the air out of everything. … This pandemic has sure taken a toll on many things. All we can keep doing is look for the positive and find the happiness in the situation we are given.”