While Oregon’s large urban and suburban school districts wrestle with how to manage thousands of students across dozens of school buildings, with the potential for remote classes growing along with the rising COVID-19 case counts, it's a different dynamic in smaller rural districts in eastern Oregon.
OPB’s "Think Out Loud®" heard from school officials in three rural districts — from the tiny Monument School District in Grant County to larger districts in Baker and Umatilla counties. In all three districts, schools are hoping to teach primarily in-person, with some groups of students learning partly online.
Baker: in-person for elementary, hybrid for older kids
The Baker School District is planning for younger students, up to grade six, to attend school in-person, every day. For older students, they’re looking at a two days in-person, two-days online kind of hybrid. Keating Elementary School teacher Toni Myers said she’s hoping to make school as familiar as possible for the pre-K to second grade students she has in class.
“They’re still going to have recess, PE, reading together — we’re still going to have those things,” Myers said. But repeating an oft-repeated refrain among state officials and educators, she added,”But it’s going to look a little different.”
One of the big differences, Myers said, is wearing face coverings. For the younger students she teachers, Myers expects to do a lot of reminding.
“A lot of my day is going to be helping them with that,” Myers said. “Whether it’s giving them a break and letting us go outside to do our reading lesson, so they can take their mask off. … I’m already thinking about how I can help them manage this new situation in their life.”
For months, Baker County had just one positive COVID-19 case, but that increased to 16 in the last few weeks.
Umatilla: options for parents
In Umatilla County, case counts have boomed over the last several weeks. The eastern Oregon community has emerged as the most difficult coronavirus hot spot in the region, with limited healthcare capacity and rising caseloads due to a combination of workplace outbreaks and community spread of the disease.
Teacher Leanne Goff at McNary Heights Elementary said the Umatilla School District responded to the rising case counts and the approaching school year by trying to offer parents flexibility. The district has developed what it calls a “hybrid” approach, which can involve in-person and online learning, with the flexibility of moving between the two with as little as five days’ notice.
“We are really considering every possibility, following the guidelines very carefully, and putting safety as our top priority,” Goff said.
Goff has spent the last few weeks teaching summer school in Umatilla, and has gotten familiar with what it’s like to teach in a socially-distanced, super-hygienic school environment. She says those habits become part of the classroom culture — another habit that students have to learn.
“You have to teach social distancing, you have to teach wearing masks, but it’s just become a normal routine,” Goff said.
Goff said that she’s excited to do in-person instruction when the regular school year comes around. But she acknowledges that she has colleagues who feel differently.
“I love being in the classroom with students, however, I’m also in a low-risk category,” Goff said, in terms of risk for suffering severe health effects from COVID-19. “I think it really varies for each teacher, in each situation.”
Monument: small and all in-person
Monument is a small town near the John Day River in Grant County. But its sparse population and expansive facilities may be a good combination for trying in-person instruction during a global pandemic.
“We have a beautiful facility with very large classrooms, that gives us the opportunity to meet that 35 feet per student requirement,” said Laura Thomas, the Monument school superintendent, referring to the state’s space requirement for in-person learning during the coronavirus pandemic. “We have the ability to bring all our students back, in class, every single day.”
Monument had just 53 K-12 students last year, and another five students in their preschool program. With a small parent community, Thomas said school staff were able to discuss challenges with families and include their concerns in plans for the upcoming school year.
Grant County has some of the lowest rates of COVID-19 in Oregon, but with case counts rising, school leaders like Thomas are preparing for the possibility of a statewide closure, like what Gov. Kate Brown declared back in March.
“I’m making plans in the background, if distance learning is needed, we’ll be ready for it,“ Thomas told OPB. “I sure hope it isn’t, school isn’t the same without all the kids.”
But while the state’s rushed attempt at online learning in spring received widespread criticism in communities large and small, people in Monument have a particular problem with it: slow internet and no cell phone service. Thomas said her district is hoping to maintain in-person instruction - in part because of the technical challenges, and in part because “it’s so much better when students and staff can be there together.”