When news of Gov. Kate Brown’s announcement to reopen schools came out March 5, Michael Contreras was in the middle of a staff meeting.
“People are like, ‘What does this mean?’ ‘How are we going to do this?’ ‘Do we have a plan? …’” Contreras said. “I go, ‘This email just came out five minutes ago — we know nothing. … I will read you the email and tell you what it says because that’s all I know, too!’”
Contreras is the principal at Ron Russell Middle School, part of the David Douglas School District in Portland. The east Multnomah County district had previously planned to remain in comprehensive distance learning (CDL) for the rest of the year, with limited in-person opportunities for some students.
“We had kind of figured out CDL,” Contreras said.
Ron Russell administrators initially planned to welcome students back for limited in-person instruction, or LIPI, after spring break. But now Contreras and his staff had to prepare for the possibility of almost 900 students coming back to school for some in-person instruction by mid-April.
Less than a week after the governor’s announcement, Contreras held another staff meeting to collect questions. The school’s “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” committee set out to get those questions answered.
But with Brown’s deadline looming, some schools and districts are having to prepare for something that hasn’t happened in over a year — reopening school buildings for in-person instruction quickly and safely — while still remaining responsive to many families not ready to return.
“There’s no protocol for this, you just have to get out as fast as you can,” Contreras said. “And there’s no system to do that, that’s what’s just crazy.”
Over the last year, the decision to reopen campuses has mostly been up to local school districts and largely dependent on COVID-19 metrics and logistics. With Brown’s actions in the last three months — she’s loosened metrics, allowed teachers to be vaccinated sooner, and finally ordered schools to reopen for some in-person learning — some schools are being pushed to reopen sooner than they’d planned.
That includes districts in east Multnomah County, smaller Portland-area schools serving students in population groups disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, that have largely stayed closed until now.
Districts pivot to hybrid
Gresham-Barlow School District was one that had announced a plan to begin school in a hybrid model for elementary students in April. But in a message to families March 8, Superintendent Katrise Perera addressed the difficulty of trying to plan a school year in a pandemic, with constantly changing guidelines from an “alphabet soup” of state and federal agencies.
“As they learn more about the virus, and in the attempt to ensure our safety, all have issued numerous and constantly changing guidelines, and regulations, and directives over the last 12 months,” Perera said. “As a school district, we have worked to communicate those changes as transparently and as quickly as possible, and in some cases, the constant changes have led to confusion and frustration.”
That district, in addition to Corbett, already has small groups of students receiving limited in-person instruction, or LIPI. In the Reynolds School District, the high school began offering limited in-person instruction at the beginning of March.
But as a district, both Reynolds and Parkrose had planned to stay in comprehensive distance learning until the end of spring break, with plans to discuss expanded limited in person and possibly hybrid instruction after that. Officials in the Centennial and David Douglas school districts had planned to begin limited in-person learning after spring break, and likely remain in comprehensive distance learning with some limited in-person options through the end of the academic year.
Brown’s order changed all of that.
“Once we were made aware of the Governor’s order, we pivoted into planning for a hybrid model,” Carol Fenstermacher, Centennial’s chief communications officer, said in an email to OPB.
Centennial now plans to have staff training and set-up in schools this week in preparation for elementary hybrid learning beginning April 1.
How many kids will come back?
Even as they’re preparing, districts remain unsure on just how many students want to return to school.
In Centennial, Fenstermacher said that, anecdotally, “for the most part families appear to be happy that their students will be back in school for some in-person learning.”
The Parkrose School District plans to welcome elementary students back beginning April 5, in a plan similar to the one in Portland Public Schools. Students in a hybrid model will attend school in-person two days a week for two hours and 15 minutes. In explaining the plan to families, the district shared that due to families wanting both hybrid and distance learning, “it makes it very challenging to provide a high-quality experience for all students with our current staffing levels.”
As of March 15, a district-wide survey for elementary students found 36.9% of families wanted hybrid, 26.9% wanted comprehensive distance learning, and 36.2% did not respond.
That’s similar to results from a David Douglas survey, in which 45% of respondents were interested in hybrid and 55% “may not immediately come back.”
Reynolds School District officials say their results are “preliminary”, but approximately 65% of families are choosing hybrid. The district continues to survey families, while also still negotiating a hybrid instruction agreement with its teachers union.
In a video from March 19 on Facebook, Reynolds Education Association president Evan Selby shared that the union and the district haven’t reached a deal on basic building safety.
“We continue to advocate for the air quality/ventilation safeguards that staff and students need and deserve,” according to REA’s post.
What will school look like?
Planning for hybrid instruction isn’t new for these east Multnomah County districts. Several are returning to plans administrators wrote last summer, modifying them in an effort to return to campus by Brown’s deadlines.
For elementary students, most districts are planning for in-person instruction to consist of a couple of hours at school, twice a week.
But while some of this time in-person will be spent on instruction and review, Parkrose superintendent Lopes Serrao emphasized the importance of having students interact with each other again, face to face, instead of on a screen.
“I want the kids to be online as little as possible to be honest, because they have spent so much time online,” he said during a listening session earlier this month.
These districts are also hearing from families who want more robust in-person instruction, or question why reopening is taking longer in these districts than it has in other parts of the state.
In a March 10 message to families, Centennial Supt. Paul Coakley shared an elementary hybrid schedule that has two groups of students in class for part of the day, twice a week. Coakley said the plan’s strengths include the increased possibility that students stay with their teachers, and consistency with continued distance learning.
He also asked for understanding in putting forward a plan that not everyone might agree with.
“We know that some of our families will favor this model while others may prefer models being utilized elsewhere, but we will give ourselves and each other grace to navigate this ever-changing landscape,” Coakley said.
With support, preparing for a return
In preparing for a return to campuses, the Oregon Department of Education has surveyed school districts across the state and been in touch with school leaders who requested support from ODE, such as joining community meetings or meeting with staff.
Not every school will reopen the week of March 29. According to the Oregon Department of Education, 39 schools “have a clear plan with documented dates for meeting the Governor’s goal by the end of April with rationale approved by ODE”. Those include some campuses in Gresham-Barlow and Reynolds. Gresham-Barlow will begin hybrid for some students April 1. Hybrid instruction in the Reynolds School District will begin April 8.
These administrators also have the support of the Multnomah Education Service District, one of 19 districts across the state offering services and programs to school systems.
Angela Hubbs serves as a reopening advisor at MESD, a role that means helping bridge the gap between ODE and school districts. For the last year, district curriculum directors have been meeting twice a month with Hubbs to share resources and best practices.
Recently, MESD has hosted professional development opportunities around trauma-informed care, to help staff prepare for students returning to schools.
“We put something together so that we could have an opportunity for educators … to bring concerns or ideas to the table around the really practical considerations for supporting kids who have been out of school, in-person, for the last year,” Hubbs said.
Jamie Smith is MESD’s coordinator of school health services. He said Brown’s announcement sped up work that’s been going on for months to prepare schools for returning students.
“We have been leery all year for a quick pivot, and certainly that quick pivot is now happening,” Smith said.
Smith said MESD has consulted with districts on fulfilling health and safety state requirements by helping districts order personal protective equipment and create isolated spaces for students exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.
MESD also provides nurses and school health assistants to districts.
“As those students come back, the nurse’s job, overall, is to remove health-related barriers to education,” Smith said.
That means training staff to be able to offer extra support for students.
But staffing a school’s new isolation room could be difficult for schools in east Multnomah County, Smith said. Some school nurses have five different schools they rotate through over a week. At the same time, schools need to be staffed to deal with the potential need for student mental health support.
“We don’t know what kids are going to come back like, what kind of status they’re going to be in,” Smith said.
Smith said MESD will also continue to advocate for families continuing the year in distance learning due to a student at increased risk of COVID-19.
But there’s also another reason students served by these districts may stay home. COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted the Latino community in Multnomah County, which makes up a large percentage of the student population in several east county districts.
“We certainly work with the belief that we need to provide facts and consistent messaging and information, and respect everybody’s situation,” Smith said. “There’s certainly some grace there for what people have experienced and what they’ve gone through.”
For Contreras at Ron Russell Middle School, he’s not yet sure how many of those almost 900 students will be coming back. And there’s still a lot of work to do before then, from finalizing the day-to-day schedule to figuring out the best way for students to get to the bathroom.
Fortunately, the school’s safety committee has a little more time to figure things out.
Under Brown’s order, middle and high schools don’t have to reopen until the week of April 19. Contreras said school staff will be ready.
“We figured out CDL,” he said. “I think we can figure out this, whatever this new model is.”