When Gov. Kate Brown ordered Oregon’s public schools to close in mid-March, Brooke Gildenmeister of Portland braced herself to take on the role of educator.
The stay-at-home mom was ready to guide her Alameda Elementary kindergartner, Jane, through virtual lessons via a Portland Public Schools-issued Chromebook.
But Jane didn’t want her mom anywhere near her while class was in session.
“She wanted her teacher back. She really didn’t want to get instructions from her mom,” Gildenmeister said.
Brown and state schools chief Colt Gill feel the same way about all Oregon children around Jane’s age. They know how important it is for students that young to be back in class, face-to-face with their teachers, so they’ve lowered the bar to reopening schools amid coronavirus just for children in kindergarten through grade 3.
But so far, most districts in the 17 Oregon counties that are allowed aren’t planning to teach their littlest learners in person. That has some advocates for early learners concerned.
To try to allow her daughter maximum connection to her teacher online, Gildenmeister took to leaving Jane alone in a room, door slightly ajar, while she listened for cues the 6-year-old might need help. Any efforts to help Jane before she asked for assistance were immediately rebuffed.
The youngster had become so used to the separation between school and home that it was difficult for her to have the two become one.
“She just really had a hard time with it,” Gildenmeister said.
According to guidelines laid out by the state Department of Education, it’ll take three consecutive weeks of Oregon registering statewide and county-specific test positivity rates of 5% or less and 10 or fewer coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in any given county for students in those locales to resume in-person instruction.
As of Aug. 29, only three sparsely populated counties plus Douglas County, with 112,000 people, and Tillamook, with about 26,000, meet those thresholds so far.
Taking young children’s needs into account, Brown and Gill announced in early August they’d make exceptions to the state guidelines to allow kindergarteners and first-, second- and third- graders to receive in-person instruction even when the state at large isn’t ready to open schools.
If a county sees case counts no higher than 30 per 100,000 residents and meets a test positivity threshold of 5% or less, its youngest learners should be allowed back inside the classroom, they said.
On top of the five counties eligible to fully reopen, 12 more of Oregon’s 36 counties, including Deschutes, Lane and Benton, meet the little-kids-only threshold. But most school districts that qualify to teach their youngest children in person aren’t yet planning to do so, citing uncertainties about health precautions, concerns among parents and opposition from teacher unions.
Meanwhile, some educators say their employers haven’t done enough to ensure safe working conditions for in-person instruction. Teachers in the Lane County district of Springfield on Tuesday protested their district’s Sept. 14 start for in-person instruction of young learners, saying it’s “too soon.”
“Every teacher I have spoken with wants to be with their students. We are dedicated professionals who love our work and we miss our classrooms desperately,” Alyssa Nestler, a second- and third-grade teacher at Yolanda Elementary School, said in a release. “However, as early childhood educators, there is no denying the scale and pace at which we are trying to reopen is simply not safe or appropriate.”
Educators in nearby Junction City have similarly expressed trepidation over in-person trainings with no students present, The Register-Guard reported.
And some of the state’s largest districts, including Portland and Salem-Keizer, have not yet reached an agreement with their teachers unions on what a safe return to the classroom would look like. Neither district plans to have students attend classes in-person until at least November.
Multnomah County, home to Portland, and Marion County, with Salem as its county seat, are among 10 or so counties, including many in rural Eastern Oregon, where new coronavirus case counts remain much too high to reach state reopening metrics even for the youngest students any time soon. Washington County also remains far off that mark, while Clackamas County metrics fall just short so far.
Marissa Williams, whose son, Mason, is an incoming second-grader at Ardenwald Elementary in the North Clackamas district, felt overwhelmed adding the role of teacher to her already full plate.
She works the graveyard shift as a baker and, in addition to her 8-year-old, has a 4-year-old daughter and 13-year-old stepdaughter. When Ardenwald shut down in March, Mason lost two teachers.
He spent about one-third of each school day with a speech therapist before joining his peers for the rest of the day.
Williams said her son had a difficult time processing the fact that he wouldn’t get to see his special education teacher, who’s taught him since kindergarten.
For weeks after the governor ordered schools to shutter during the pandemic, the youngster would strap on his backpack in the morning, walk to his mother and say, “I’m going to Miss Becky’s today.”
“He misses his teacher so much,” Williams said. “He needs to see her.”
She’s also worried that Mason will fall behind his peers because she doesn’t feel equipped to guide her son through his lessons. Becoming her child’s teacher in the spring felt like taking on another full-time job, one she wasn’t prepared for, she said.
“I am doing an extra job and even with my fiance‘s help it was unmanageable,” she said. “It was that that was making me feel depressed and like I’m not good enough. And that is a bad feeling to have.”
Audrey Lucero, who teaches courses in language, literacy and bilingualism at the University of Oregon and is the College of Education’s director of critical and sociocultural studies, said school districts and health officials should be working to get young children in the same room as their teachers as soon as possible.
Attachments between little learners and their teachers like the kind Mason and Jane developed are common, Lucero said. And those relationships are key to getting younger students to adopt habits conducive to learning.
“A lot of times, we think about learning and reading and writing as individual experiences, but they’re really social in nature,” Lucero said.
Children learn best when they’re comfortable and have a distinct separation between home and school. That’s why it’s essential for students, particularly those in lower grades, to feel at ease during instruction, she said.
On that front, there’s a silver lining for Mason.
Although he’ll have a new classroom teacher heading into the second grade, his beloved Miss Becky will also guide him through the beginning of the school year.
“That is a benefit and I’m not sure if other parents have had that,” Williams, his mother, said. “I am so blessed to have her.”
Beginning Sept. 14, school officials in the southern coast city of North Bend plan for their youngest students to attend class Mondays through Thursdays. Students will be split into morning and afternoon groups that each attend half the school day to minimize the number of children in the building at once.
Officials in Crook County start in-person instruction for their kindergartners and first-, second- and third-graders one week earlier, on Tuesday.
Most districts that plan to offer any in-person instruction, including those in Springfield and Hermiston, have indicated they’ll have students attend class in-person two days per week. North Bend Superintendent Kevin Bogatin told The Oregonian/OregonLive that’s the plan his district is adopting for middle and high schoolers.
But he worried that for students in the early elementary grades, two days per week in the classroom wouldn’t be enough for teachers to establish trusting relationships with them.
“We really couldn’t envision how that initial kindergarten connection with a teacher would even work on Zoom or online,” he said.
Plus, younger children spend much of their time in the classroom getting used to the routines that define their school experience, according to both Bogatin and Lucero, the early childhood professor.
“They don’t really know how to do school yet,” she said.
Young children are just learning how to read, even getting used to such minute details as how to hold a book. They’re socializing with their peers and figuring out how to study in small groups. And they’re getting used to problem-solving and reinforcement in recognizing patterns.
“These kinds of practices take a lot of repetition and they take a lot of practice on the part of little people,” Lucero said. “You need to have those routines down pat.”
And, in Mason’s case, the incoming second-grader was just getting comfortable with his peers and adjusting to taking instructions from his classroom teacher.
“He needs to know, ‘I need to listen to people who aren’t my mom and dad,’” Williams, his mother, said.
Clatsop County, which includes the Astoria district, is among the places where kindergartners and first-graders are allowed in the classroom.
But officials there say they don’t have plans to start in-person instruction until Oct. 1. Superintendent Craig Hoppes told The Oregonian/OregonLive that teachers, principals and custodians are still fine-tuning what a return to school might look like.
“If I can get ’em in the building, I can educate ’em,” Hoppes said. “But it’s really difficult to get ’em in the building right now.”
Some 15% of the district’s parents are reluctant to have their children return to the classroom even if the state says it’s safe, Hoppes said.
All districts that seek the state OK to offer even part-time in-person instruction must include a comprehensive plan to return to distance learning should coronavirus cases spike.
Astoria’s elementary educators are working out plans to teach their youngest students in a manner much different than they’re used to.
“How do you line up a 5-year-old 6 feet apart from someone else?” Hoppes said. “We’re asking them to be a community but we can’t ask them to be socially around people. That makes things difficult.”
Children need reminders to wash their hands even when the state and country aren’t in a pandemic. Reinforcing that habit, along with mask-wearing, is among the challenges Hoppes and other educators face this fall.
Astoria High French teacher Rebecca Pierce, 31, began making face masks at home at the outset of the school closures.
“It was a way for me to channel my own fear into something productive,” she said.
The hobby also had the effect of normalizing mask-wearing for Pierce’s 6-year-old daughter Erica. Much like Jane in Portland, Erica forged a relationship with her kindergarten teacher that was difficult to replicate from afar once classes went all-digital in the spring.
Erica’s teacher held weekly phone check-ins with her students. Those conversations were supposed to last 30 minutes, but it was difficult to get the youngster off the line.
“She’d just talk forever and ever, and that was so sweet,” Pierce said. “Having that in-person relationship really helped when it came to the tough stuff later.”
Lucero, the University of Oregon professor, said it’ll be difficult for teachers to establish such strong bonds with their students from afar if schools start the year in distance learning mode.
The transition will be most difficult for kindergartners.
“They don’t know the teacher so suddenly there’s this strange new adult asking them to do something,” Lucero said.
But the pandemic doesn’t just make it difficult for students and their families to get back into the swing of things. Lucero spent spring term teaching aspiring elementary educators. She had to adopt a new playbook for her classes and also help her students grapple with the realities of teaching in the time of COVID.
“I feel like it’s kind of pushed me to think differently about technology and to really appreciate that there are a lot of cool ways to engage people online,” Lucero said.
Still, the teacher of teachers said the fundamentals she’s long relied on trumped the digital hurdles she had to overcome. And Lucero said elementary educators should similarly keep their students’ comfort top of mind and do whatever they can to get little learners in back-to-school mode.
The delivery method for elementary instruction may have changed, Lucero said, but the overall goal — and the script she uses to get there — remains the same.
“We’re going to do things together and I’m here to support you,” Lucero said. “We’re going to learn together and have positive experiences.”
This story is part of a collaborative by The Oregonian/OregonLive, OPB, Salem Reporter, The Bulletin and the Ontario Argus Observer to bring Oregonians comprehensive coverage of the state’s students and public schools amid the coronavirus pandemic.