The idea of a “soft start” isn’t exactly clear to Portland parent Clare Lanusse, but she’s figuring it out.

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“I understand that they want to ease people on and give people time to figure out the technology, but it kind of feels like it’s just extending …” Lanusse said. “I think it’s good just to get people comfortable, but it reminds me of the spring, when the district didn’t know what it was doing.”

But this time, Portland Public Schools has a plan.

After a spring of emergency teaching, school districts are starting the year by giving teachers, students, and families time — time to learn new tools, to understand a new system, and just reconnect after a stressful six months.

Portland Public Schools closed in-person classes in March 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Portland Public Schools closed in-person classes in March 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The new school year starts Sept. 2, but school buildings remain closed.

MacGregor Campbell / OPB

“Part of me wishes that we weren’t trying this — that we had the ability to give kids a break, but there are so many kids that are falling through the cracks,” Lanusse said.

Lanusse has three kids in three different Portland schools, plus she’s a student herself, starting at Portland State University this fall.

While she’s happy that both PPS and PSU will stay virtual for health reasons, both she and her kids will miss in-person schooling.

“It’s a mix of emotions because the spring was really challenging for us, and I know the district has had time to look at how to deliver school in the fall,” Lanusse said.

She’s also skeptical of how it will all go.

Some live, some independent: the PPS plan

With Gov. Kate Brown setting COVID-19 standards for school reopening, most Oregon schools will remain closed for at least the first two months of the school year. Lower COVID-19 rates in more rural counties have allowed some schools to open, especially for younger students.

PPS Chief of Schools Shawn Bird said the district has spent months planning the return to school. While a virtual return is not ideal, Bird said school this year won’t be like it was last spring.

“We tried to have a mix of synchronous which is live instruction, and asynchronous, which is independent work,” Bird said.

“We don’t want children in front of the screen all day.”

At the same time, Bird said there will be flexibility if students miss a live lesson.

“The whole schedule is designed to support families, so we know that people are working, we know that they’re being parents, and we know that they’re also managing the education of their children at this time,” Bird said.

For Clare Lanusse’s sixth grader, Parker, distance learning in the spring was “awful.”

“I’m hoping that it will be different, but I don’t really know,” Parker said.

“I know there’s going to be more instruction, which is good, but I don’t know if it’s going to be that different, because it’s just sitting in front of a screen for six hours.”

PPS’ “soft start” is part professional development for teachers, part connecting with families, and part lesson planning time. There will also be time for students in transitional grades to get acclimated to a new school environment and learn their new schedule.

“We just want to do those things to help build community,” Bird said.

Clare Lanusse’s oldest, Connor, is starting ninth grade at Madison High School. Like his mom, he’s hopeful that because PPS had more time than it did in the spring, the district will be better prepared to teach students.

But some of the things he looked forward to in high school, like making new friends and taking an engineering class, are on hold.

“I’m the only person from my middle school who is going to Madison, so I will know no one,” Connor said. “It’s going to be hard making friends online in school, and it would be much easier if it were in person.”

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And despite the work to improve this year’s plan for comprehensive distance learning, inequities seen this spring will likely show up again this fall.

Despite progress and planning, barriers remain

Last weekend, Nadia Coronado had a “massive migraine.” She said that it felt for her like a physical indication of how unprepared she feels.

Not as a mother of four children, but as a high school English as a second language teacher in Portland.

She’s worried about her students.

“Being in a sinking ship together doesn’t bring any comfort,” Coronado said.

“There’s some real issues of, how do we use this new learning management system … how do we take care of our children who aren’t in school, like my 2-year-old … how do we entertain them, how do we keep them safe? There’s no clear answers.”

This fall, PPS’ Shawn Bird hopes counselors, social workers, and student teachers can provide more targeted support for students who need it.

In the summer, the district met with some families one-on-one (at a distance) at home or at school to make sure students were connected and knew how to use online programs. Bird said that group will be a focus in the fall too.

“We really want to focus on how we’re connecting with kids we didn’t connect with consistently last year, but also the families so they know we have supports in place for them as well,” Bird said.

Those other supports include nutrition hubs for students and their families to get food and a technology help hotline, plus continued partnerships with culturally responsive organizations to help bridge communication between the district and communities of color.

Schools will also operate on “standardized schedules” to allow set time for live instruction and independent work.

“We just want to make sure families understand that we have some guidelines we need to follow by the state, but more importantly, we want to make sure the kids are getting an education,” Bird said.

“We look forward to the eventual return to school, but while we’re in this situation, we need to make sure that they’re not losing their educational experience.”

But with standardized schedules and more opportunity for live instruction come stricter rules for grading and attendance.

Rules, tests once suspended, now return

In the spring, there was added flexibility for students and their families. Attendance wasn’t clearly defined, and grades were pass/fail. Testing was canceled.

With schools now required to take attendance and give grades, teachers like Coronado are concerned that grades aren’t the priority right now for some of her students.

“It’s really hard to think I’m going to be grading students on how well they’re learning English when they’re just trying to protect their families and get enough food and also stay mentally healthy through all of this stress of not being able to physically interact with friends, or with loved ones,” Coronado said.

With online learning, there’s also the added problem of making sure students interact with each other. It’s something Centennial teacher — and PPS parent — Mike Nichols is thinking about.

There are ways to create digital spaces for students to interact with each other. But Nichols said it still worries him.

“I see the growth of my boys at home — social growth — and we’re going to have a lot of kids … missing a year of social interaction,” Nichols said. “All the soccer games and baseball games, and places where you learn how to be with other people.”

There’s also the continued challenge of child care for both school staff and families. Both Nichols and Coronado have small children who aren’t in day care.

After surveying the school community about child care need, PPS does not have a plan in place for how to help parents yet.

The district said an update on that is due out this week.

As the year begins, Bird said the district will continue to monitor its comprehensive distance learning and make adjustments as needed.

Teacher Nadia Coronado wants the district to change the terminology of the current educational approach. Rather than calling it “comprehensive,” Coronado says the district should acknowledge the public health emergency that’s behind the change.

“I think we really need to focus on the fact that we’re living through a pandemic,” Coronado said.

“There needs to be continual focus on the fact that a lot of us hurting and a lot of us are struggling emotionally, mentally, physically, financially, and in order to center that — I think we need to call this what it is, it’s ’pandemic teaching,’ and we’re doing the best we can.”

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