As COVID-19 Cases Rise, Oregon School Districts Prepare For Fall

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
July 14, 2020 6:35 p.m.

Schools around Oregon are planning to welcome students back on campus this fall, despite alarming increases in COVID-19 cases and the news that big districts in other states are already planning a virtual start to the academic year.

Several Oregon districts have expressed plans for a hybrid system – meaning students spend time learning in the classroom and at home. But any plan to reopen school buildings comes with a lot of protocols to maintain the safety and health of everyone in the building.


And amid all of the local decisions being made at the moment, voices at both the state and national levels are sharing their input.

Related: Gov. Kate Brown To Expand Mask Mandate Throughout Oregon

On Monday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown limited indoor social gatherings to 10 people, though the rules don't apply to businesses or churches. When asked about how recent virus modeling might affect school reopening, Brown said the decisions will likely be made locally -- instead of the sweeping statewide order that closed all campuses in March.

The Oregon Department of Education has released reopening outlines for districts twice this summer. The next guidance update is July 21. ODE said districts can choose between fully in-person learning, a hybrid, or comprehensive distance learning.

But nationally, both Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Trump have advocated for opening schools this fall no matter what. Trump has tweeted his disagreement with Centers for Disease Control guidelines and threatened to pull funding from schools that don't reopen, although he does not have that power. DeVos has said schools need to be creative.

Regardless of what high-level administrators have to say about the fall, school staff and district officials have to figure out what the first day of school might look like.

Here are a few things districts are planning:

Hybrid Is The Plan For Most

Schools have until Aug. 15 to submit their blueprints for reopening to the state. None have been submitted yet - but once they are, the plans will be available online here.

Several school districts have shared their plans with their communities. And while those plans can still change, a lot of administrators are opting for a hybrid plan that combines onsite and distance learning.

In addition to hybrid models that combine onsite and distance learning, a number of districts are advertising online-only programs to families who don’t feel comfortable back in the classroom.

Applications opened Monday for Salem-Keizer’s Enhanced Digital and Guided Education program.

Related: Medford Expands Summer School, After Students Struggle With Distance Learning

“Students enrolled in the EDGE program will pair teacher-led instruction with family-supported and independent at-home application and learning while still staying deeply connected to their school communities,” read a release announcing the program.

Beaverton’s offering is called FLEX Online. As of Monday, the district  has over 700 applicants.

"This option is for families looking for a permanent online solution separate from their regular, neighborhood, or options schools," according to a BSD video.

Beaverton will also offer comprehensive distance learning for students seeking a “temporary” experience. But district officials say students who enroll in FLEX will be able to go back to their neighborhood school when they’re ready.

West-Linn Wilsonville will have a similar online-only alternative, too. They’ve had 200 students sign up as of Monday, with more expected before a July 24 deadline.

Eugene and Hillsboro are also offering online programs.


On Campus For Younger Grades, Hybrid for Older Students

Several districts are considering options that include in-person class every day for elementary students. It's part of Hillsboro and the Redmond School District's plan, as the Bend Bulletin previously reported.

It's also a part of Lake Oswego's plan. With two schools vacant for bond work that's been paused, Lake Oswego spokesperson Mary Kay Larson said the district's elementary students can be spread out across eight campuses. A Lake Oswego school employee had Oregon's first known case of COVID-19 back in February.

“By doing that we’re able to have enough space where students can have their designated 35 square feet,” Larson said.

Larson also said having younger students in school is helpful in building core skills.

“They need to learn how to read, they need to learn how to do their numbers and their math … so they can become more independent,” Larson said.

Alternating Schedules To Have Fewer Students In Buildings

Many districts are planning on breaking students up into groups so that one will be in class half the week, with the other learning at home. Then those groups will switch.

Schools have been advised to teach students in small cohorts that will stay together for lunch and other activities to better track students, allow time for cleaning and limit the potential spread of the virus.

Having students learning at home some of their week may be difficult for working parents or parents with young children, especially if schools cannot provide childcare. In a document shared with its district community, the Klamath County School District said "we are encouraging parents to form cooperative groups of family and friends who can collaborate to provide supervision, activities, and homework assistance during days students are not at school."

Portland Public Schools’ plan includes this cohort model for Pre-K through 8th grade. The district said it is considering fewer classes for high school students to allow for a more focused learning environment for students dealing with a new system.

Weekly Time For Professional Development, Added Supports

Whatever model school districts choose, it will likely be a new experience for everyone involved. Schooling this fall will even look different from this spring’s “Distance Learning for All" model. Both state and local leaders say this fall’s distance learning will be more robust than instruction this past spring. Attendance will be taken, and grades and tests may be given.

So that’s why several districts will likely set aside time for teacher training or additional support for students.

Hillsboro's preliminary plan includes time on Wednesdays for "staff collaboration/professional development."

The Umatilla School District will offer Fridays as a time for students who need extra help.

For Portland Public Schools, the district's proposed model includes two weeks of virtual planning for the new school year for teachers, families, and students.

“This time will allow us to make sure our online learning platforms are working well on a large, district-wide scale and that students and teachers are ready, connected to each other and comfortable with the learning technology they will be using,” the district said.

No matter the teaching method, there are still other questions that need to be answered. How will schools get students to and from school while still maintaining distancing requirements? Who will enforce all of the health requirements? And how will districts pay for all of the added costs that will come with running a school that fulfills all of the state protocols?

Looming over all of this planning is the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak on campus. Every school is required to have a short-term distance learning plan in case of an outbreak.

Still, uncertainty remains for teachers, staff and families as the virus spreads again.

When asked about the start of the year in Beaverton, district officials said they’re paying attention to the latest information from the state and health authority.

"We won't be able to move towards this hybrid or move towards this in-person instruction until it's safe to do so," Beaverton administrator Brian Sica said during a Q&A video session hosted by the district. "We won't rush that process and we won't jump into that until we're sure we're ready."