Think Out Loud

Eastern Oregon schools prepare for new, strange school year

By Kanani Cortez (OPB)
Aug. 20, 2020 10:56 p.m. Updated: Aug. 23, 2020 9:35 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday. Aug. 21

The changing metrics for school reopenings in Oregon allow some students to return to in-person instruction while others continue distance learning.

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In Eastern Oregon, Umatilla School District will be operating remotely, while Fossil School District will conduct in-person instruction.

Fossil School District is located in Wheeler County, the only county in Oregon with no known COVID-19 cases. It’s set to reopen for in-person instruction next week. Superintendent. Jim Smith said his staff prepared for a variety of options after the initial school closures in the spring.

“We just said ‘We’ve got to be ready to do that. We’ve got to be ready to do your hybrid, and we’ve got to be ready to do in-person,’” he said. “So we kept working three different plans through the summer, waiting for final directions from the state.”

Superintendents said that despite the state’s changing metrics for school reopenings, they are prepared to continue instruction if conditions change, but they hope they won’t have to.

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“If by chance we had to close, within 24 hours we would be up and running virtually,” Smith said.

In Fossil schools, students are encouraged to wear face coverings and will be separated by cohorts to minimize interactions.

In Umatilla County, the school year looks very different. Umatilla recently returned to Phase 1 of reopening after being at “baseline” status since July 31 under Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s orders.

Umatilla School District had initially planned for a hybrid instruction model in which students could attend class in-person, and the curriculum would be available virtually for students if needed. The district had to pivot after new metrics for reopening schools came out.

Umatilla Superintendant. Heidi Sipes has hosted Facebook live sessions to hear community concerns about the school year. Umatilla schools are offering office hours from teachers and tutoring services.

“We’ve set everything up where it’s live and on-demand, just like you would when you’re watching television,” Sipes said.

During the move to remote instruction in the spring, the district identified neighborhoods that lacked internet connections and implemented a “point-to-point” system to provide internet access with the help of local businesses and the community. Students will be able to access lessons and curriculum in the evenings if needed.

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