As Oregon schools open their doors, students are heading back to school in droves for hybrid instruction — with some time spent at school, in person, and the rest of the time continuing to learn at home.

But thousands of Oregon students are staying home and continuing to learn online, in comprehensive distance learning.

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How many exactly, is hard to say.

The Oregon Department of Education does not keep track of how many students are in distance learning. As of last week, more than 400,000 students were in person at least some of the time, leaving at least 160,000 students in distance learning, assuming the rest of the state’s schoolchildren are still enrolled in Oregon public schools receiving instruction from home.

When Gov. Kate Brown mandated that schools open classrooms to hybrid learning, state officials also required that schools continue to support distance learning for families that wanted or needed that approach.

As school districts are offering multiple learning models, families made their choices. Students heading back to physical classrooms have found the experience isn’t the same as they remembered before the pandemic. And even for the students finishing the year at home, some things have changed.

Related: Rules and reunions: Heading back to in-person school

For Portland Association of Teachers president Elizabeth Thiel, adding hybrid instruction to the distance learning model has been a “huge lift” for educators. She said the concern around students in distance learning, and whether they are being reached, remains.

“The kids who are not coming in live are frequently the same kids who needed attention in the first place,” Thiel said.

She said she worries about whether students in remote learning will continue to receive the attention they need when educators also have students in person.

“How do you give kids coming in live the things they’ve been missing without leaving out the kids at home?”

In Portland, interest in different learning models varies by school

For a small number of Portland students, the end of the school year has meant big changes, such as moving to an entirely new school. That’s because once schools started offering hybrid instruction, certain grade levels at some schools had so many students choose hybrid, there weren’t enough students in distance learning to justify dedicating a teacher just for them. So the district made the distance-learning students change schools.

In Portland Public Schools interest in hybrid and distance learning varies widely by school. In survey data from last month, interest in hybrid at Northwest Portland’s Forest Park Elementary was quite high — 80%. Across the Willamette River, at Peninsula Elementary in North Portland, it was far lower, just 36%.

Karen Davis is the parent of a Peninsula 5th grader. She said learning at home has been working for her daughter.

“Why rock the boat, and put her in a situation where she could get sick?” Davis said.

At Peninsula, her schedule hasn’t changed since hybrid started, and she is able to keep her same teacher. And comprehensive distance learning at this school doesn’t mean students stay home all the time. Davis said the school offers outdoor activities at the school three times a week.

All of these things, in addition to being in a smaller school, with teachers who have known her for years, gives Davis peace of mind that her daughter is still connected to her school, even if she’s not physically there.

“They don’t need to be in person to have the relationship,” Davis said.

According to the survey data from PPS, the schools with the higher interest in hybrid learning have been some of the whiter, wealthier schools at the district. Schools with less interest in hybrid are some of the schools serving more students of color. In more recent data from the district, those differences are more apparent.

The data show 59% percent of Asian students and Black students opted-in to hybrid, compared to 73% of white students. 60% of both Hispanic and Native American students opted-in to hybrid. Data also show that 66% of students receiving special education services and 59% of English Language Learners opted in to hybrid.

Managing the wide range of preferences has been difficult in Oregon’s largest district, in part because PPS is teaching those students separately, rather than using “simultaneous” or “simulcast” instruction with a video hookup into classrooms, as some places are using.

The district said it has tried to keep students with their teachers, but for some students that wasn’t possible, especially at schools with a majority of students choosing hybrid.

However, district-wide, even if students are now receiving instruction from a different teacher, there is a weekly opportunity for all students to connect virtually, with the classmates they started the school year with.

At Rosa Parks Elementary in North Portland, about half of families indicated an interest in hybrid. That even split means less change for students. All students learn together in the morning. Then in the afternoon, small groups formed at the school during distance learning now meet either in person or virtually.

Jaime Cale is a PPS parent who works in the front office at Rosa Parks. She’s also running as a write-in candidate for the school board.

Cale’s son, a fifth-grader at Rosa Parks, decided not to go back to school, staying in distance learning.

“He just really didn’t want to go back,” Cale said. “He said he likes his routine.”

She worried her son would miss out by not going back yet, but as she spent time in the school at the start of hybrid, she noticed how different the school experience was.

“The fun, frenetic energy you have by working in a school, it wasn’t there — it was quiet,” Cale said.

“So at the same time, I’m like, ‘maybe he’s not really missing anything.’”

Cale said she’s heard many reasons why students aren’t back in person. Children may live with grandparents or other high-risk family members, or it’s difficult to find childcare or get students to school for just two hours, four days a week.

“The two hours a day just wasn’t worth putting her at risk when the schools are old and they don’t have the ventilation,” Davis, the parent of a 5th grader at Peninsula, said. “And Peninsula’s done such a great job keeping them online and being successful in the house.”

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Across the district, some families are changing their minds about hybrid and returning to distance learning. With rising COVID-19 case rates and positive cases at schools, more families may be moving back to comprehensive distance learning.

The Oregon Health Authority’s latest outbreak report includes cases at dozens of schools across Oregon. That includes a handful in Portland - the largest, five student cases at Harrison Park School.

Portland educator and parent Tereza Bottman asked the PPS school board at its meeting Tuesday to pay attention to the rise in COVID-19 infections.

“We are conflating lack of testing and contact tracing with lack of spread, acting if schools had a magical dome of immunity surrounding them,” Bottman said.

Jamie Cale’s older student, a middle schooler, is back at school. The family made the choice so he could get both academic support and social opportunities.

She said he’s been happy to see people his own age and be a part of a group again.

But so far, she said he isn’t getting a lot of academic support.

“Socially I think kids are benefitting, emotionally it’s even helping,” Cale said. “They’re not necessarily learning new curriculum.”

The conversation around reopening has been contentious, with parents advocating to keep schools closed and others advocating for a full-time return to classrooms. At the end of the day, Cale said no one is entirely happy.

“No matter what side of this debate you fall on ... nobody loves this schedule,” Cale said. “Whether you wanted schools to stay CDL, or you wanted to open five days full time, this schedule isn’t preferred by anybody... it’s definitely a compromise for both sides.”

Another PPS parent with a middle school student said the schedule change has been difficult, leaving their student with less school time and spending most of the day alone.

The parent said their child in distance learning is now getting less attention and direction. OPB is not sharing the parent’s name because of privacy concerns.

“Through no fault of my daughter’s, she is now getting less education, less engagement with peers, and she is much more stressed,” the parent said.

Other districts in the Portland metro area are figuring this out too.

The challenge of keeping distance learning students engaged

Beaverton School District officials report that because elementary interest in hybrid compared to distance learning was about “50/50” they were able to largely maintain teacher assignments.

In the Tigard Tualatin School District, like in Portland, the breakdown of students choosing hybrid compared to distance learning varies from school to school. At Tigard High, just 43% of students preferred shifting to a hybrid schedule, while at Twality Middle School, and at the district’s elementary schools, interest in hybrid reached 69%.

How that translated to managing schools and student-teacher connections varied in the district, too. At the elementary school level, Tigard-Tualatin officials said it ranged from every student keeping the same teacher to one school where 143 students shifted to different teachers.

Jarvis Gomes is principal of Deer Creek Elementary in the Tigard-Tualatin School District and the president of the Association of Tigard Tualatin Administrators, a group of administrators across the district.

Gomes said operating two different learning models — one hybrid, the other online — hasn’t been too difficult to maneuver because the district has been in online learning mode all year. But maintaining connections is on his mind too.

“The part that I’m conscious about is making sure our CDL students and staff are still connected to the school,” Gomes said. “You can put a little more energy into hybrid because they’re here, your staff is here and you can actually see them, it’s a little bit easier to walk down the halls and for me to say ‘hi.’”

Gomes said he is able to show up in virtual classrooms too.

Out of about 550 students, around 90 students at Deer Creek had to change teachers, Gomes said. He said teachers use the same curriculum, and they’ve been welcoming to these “new” students.

“I think it’s overall been a positive experience for the students,” Gomes said.

Like Portland, Tigard-Tualatin schools continue to offer access to counselors and parent check-ins, as well as virtual assemblies and other events to ensure participation across all learning models.

It’s not just instruction and engagement that’s gotten more complicated. Across the Portland metro area, the way students get meals has changed too. As schools have needed to use buses to transport students, it’s not as simple as having buses deliver lunches anymore. Meal delivery has been greatly reduced or it’s only available for pick up at schools, including for students continuing who are avoiding school, in distance learning.

Portland Public Schools, Beaverton, Parkrose and Reynolds are among the districts that ended meal delivery service via bus routes with the start of hybrid.

Will districts factor distance learning into fall plans?

As both school districts and families make plans for the fall, schools have already pledged to reopen for five days a week, full-time. But what is unclear in some of these districts is whether distance learning will continue to be an option for families.

Some districts, like Salem-Keizer, have standalone online programs that will continue on. Salem-Keizer’s EDGE Program will offer two different track options — one for students to work independently and one with more teacher support.

In Tigard-Tualatin, Gomes said there are conversations about offering distance learning in the fall, and that there is a “potential need” for it.

In Portland, the district doesn’t have official plans to continue distance learning at this point but will continue to offer Virtual Scholars, an online program for high school students.

The Portland parent with a middle school student said if children aren’t vaccinated by the fall, their family will be seeking a distance learning option again.

“We are waiting to hear what our district will do.”

How is distance learning going for your student? Do you plan to remain in distance learning in the fall? Please email emiller@opb.org or call/text 503-482-8295 to share your experience.

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