Bend School District offices

Bend School District offices

Parents around Bend have heard this before. So have its school leaders.

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“To be honest... we’ve been on the brink of reopening about three times prior to this,” superintendent Lora Nordquist said Thursday.

But this time appears different, as the largest school district east of the Cascades became the latest to announce it will reopen classrooms to students in the coming weeks.

Bend-La Pine schools announced plans Thursday for a phased return for elementary students with visits the week of Jan. 18. That would ramp up to include middle and high school students in classrooms by Feb. 8.

The district’s youngest students are on the quickest path back to the regular classroom learning: By Jan. 25, kindergarteners through third graders will attend school in-person every day. A week later, fourth and fifth graders will learn in-person two days a week. Middle and high school students will wait until Feb. 8 to start their two-day-per-week schedule at school. Fourth through 12th graders will continue distance learning on the days they’re not in school.

The plans give parents something to look forward to, though they still have the option of remaining in distance learning if it’s the family’s preference. However, the earlier close calls have Nordquist emphasizing the steps that the central Oregon district still needs to take, and continue taking, to make sure schools open and stay open, as the COVID-19 pandemic that closed schools, continues to take a toll on the state.

“So our work to mitigate it, by following all the safety procedures in Ready Schools, Safe Learners, and training our staff, hiring considerable numbers of staff... we feel like we’ve done everything we could do to be ready to welcome students back into our classrooms,” Nordquist said.

Like most of the state, Bend-area schools have been engaged in distance learning since Gov. Kate Brown ordered schools to close last March, due to the spread of COVID-19. In the months since then, hundreds of thousands of Oregon students have stayed home, with only about 10% of students learning in-person.

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Oregon’s rules governing in-person learning have changed twice since then. The first time in late October, Brown allowed schools to reopen in counties with larger case numbers, within limits that were higher than before. Anticipated school reopenings didn’t follow in large numbers, however, due to rising COVID-19 cases. Then just before Christmas, Brown relaxed the rules again, including turning mandatory COVID-19 case metrics into advisory standards.

In a message detailing the reopening of schools across the large central Oregon district, Bend-La Pine officials pointed to the governor’s Dec. 23 announcement, and highlighted a passage in bold letters:

“The long-term benefits of both heading off an emerging mental health crisis for our children and youth, and addressing the academic challenges that are becoming prevalent for far too many students in the absence of in-person learning, now far outweigh the short-term risk,” Brown’s note said.

The governor’s goal, stated on Dec. 23, was for as many students as possible to return to in-person instruction by Feb. 15. Bend school officials intend to beat that by a week, though only the district’s youngest students will attend every day.

“Our goal has been to implement a phased-in schedule, designed for the safe return to in-person instruction for all students by the start of second semester, February 8,” reads the Bend-La Pine message, signed by Superintendent Lora Nordquist. “By that date, K-3 students will be in-person daily and students in grades 4-12 will be in-person two days each week on a hybrid schedule, which is the maximum we can accommodate based on physical distancing and capacity constraints set by the state.”

Nordquist said she’s hoping fourth and fifth graders could bump up to school every day, but she’s waiting to see how scheduling and staffing work with the first set of reopening plans.

Oregon schools are still keeping a close watch on coronavirus case numbers and vaccine deployment, including in Bend. When asked about vaccines for staff — a condition that teachers’ unions have repeatedly asked for — Nordquist looks to health professionals who are only now receiving vaccines.

“They’ve used all the safety precautions to mitigate risk, but I feel like our work is essential too,” Nordquist said. “I think that we know that teaching students in-person is far superior for most students than distance learning.”

Districts face an additional wrinkle when it comes to opening if county case numbers exceed the state standards: the Oregon School Boards Association has said the recently-enacted legal protections against COVID-19 lawsuits may not apply. Case counts in Deschutes County, where Bend-La Pine is, are above what’s advised by the state. Nordquist said officials are discussing the issue — but offers a solution for the state: change to required case counts to numbers that are more like neighboring Washington’s standards, for instance.

“The easiest thing, in my opinion, that would happen is that the metrics are adjusted to be more like other states — Oregon has some of the strictest metrics in the nation,” Nordquist said.

Larger districts in the Portland metro area have generally said they’re not planning to reopen soon because coronavirus case numbers remain too high.

The Lake Oswego School District, as well as the Evergreen and Vancouver school districts in Southwest Washington, recently announced plans to bring students back to classrooms in the next several weeks.

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