The exterior of a brick and stone school building with a grassy lawn out front.

Students walked out of Roseway Heights Middle School in Northeast Portland at the start of November, complaining of bad behavior and harassment by their peers.

Courtney Sherwood / OPB

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Students at Reynolds Middle School went back to distance learning earlier this month. Reynolds superintendent Danna Diaz said the move will ensure that “Reynolds Middle School has the necessary social-emotional supports and safety protocols in place to provide a safe learning environment for all students.”

Reynolds is not alone in facing challenges related to student behavior and delays in social-emotional learning after more than a year of online school. Joni Tolon is the senior programs administrator for student services for the Multnomah Education Service District. She says she’s heard about similar problems from teachers and administrators all over the state.

“Having been in a distance learning type of school for over a year and a half, all students are struggling between what we used to expect at a certain age versus where they are now,” Tolon said. “A fourth grade teacher is now seeing children that may physically be fourth graders, but that, in their social/emotional learning, they’re still working at a second grade level.”

Tolon said these delays are often reflected in student behavior.

“Often children use their behavior as a tool to communicate,” she said. “Children are showing through their behavior that they’re struggling, and it’s not just one district. I think you could safely guess that it’s throughout our state.”

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Multnomah Education Service District school psychologist Melinda Berry said that many students are showing resilience and an ability to comply with new policies seeking to curb the spread of COVID-19, such as mask-wearing and social distancing.

“What I have noticed is low stamina for engaging in their class discussions or in a 50 minute class period,” said Berry. “Seven hours in a school building is a long time when you’re used to just being at home and kind of having the luxury of turning off your zoom camera if you need to.”

Tolon said it’s difficult to think about big changes in the midst of the pandemic, but she does have some ideas, including “potential year-round school where there are more breaks in between times of learning or looking at a four-day school calendar.”

One of the biggest challenges is retaining teachers, many of whom already say they feel overwhelmed and burnt out.

Related: Portland teachers are at a breaking point, say the results of a recent survey

According to Tolon, some districts are considering, “maybe hiring an additional teacher or two that can go around and cover when we have vacancies because we can’t get subs or working on additional ways that teachers can have extra leave when they need it or to cover paperwork issues.”

Multnomah Education Service District school psychologist Danielle Fanelli is based at Knott Creek School, a specialized program for kids with persistent behavioral challenges. She said many of the problems districts are facing are not new.

“I don’t think that the way we have historically done school is necessarily what’s best for most or all kids,” she said. “This is a key time to be looking at how we can make changes in a broader sense.”

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