Amid a global pandemic that has closed Oregon schools since mid-March and interrupted or ended formal classes for many of the state’s 580,000 students, school districts are preparing to do something surprising this summer: resume schooling, in some cases with face-to-face lessons.
At least a handful of school districts say the danger and disruption posed by the virus means summer learning is canceled or nearly so.
The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted education across Oregon. Over the next weeks and months, The Oregonian/OregonLive and Oregon Public Broadcasting are teaming up to examine the impact in a state already struggling with chronic absenteeism and one of the nation’s worst graduation rates. The latest effort — a series on Summer Learning — will involve reporting from reporters at three additional news outlets: The Bulletin, Medford Mail-Tribune and Ontario Argus-Observer.
Most districts will rely heavily or exclusively on distance learning. But some as varied as rural Baker and Eagle Point, suburban Hillsboro and capital city Salem-Keizer say they are determined to reach some or most of their students face-to-face.
Under guidelines set by the Oregon Department of Education, classes will be limited to 10 students, and activities such as common recess and cafeteria meals are forbidden. Transportation will be extra tricky as students from different households must be spaced at least three feet apart, districts officials say.
Some Schools Attempt Instruction In-Person
But, educators in those districts say, nothing can match the power of a teacher connecting in person with students. So they are determined to make it happen, much like restaurants, hair salons and doctor’s offices are pioneering a way to resume operating in a new COVID-conscious normal.
“We are determined to do everything we can so that a couple hundred kids who need us the most can come to school,” said Travis Reiman, Hillsboro’s assistant superintendent for academic services.
Hillsboro officials checked with families before formulating their plans: Were parents ready to see their children back in class? About half were not, but the other half are hungry for it to happen, said Arcema Tovar, coordinator of elementary teaching and learning.
Distance learning protocols relied on by districts around the state and nation were designed “with a lens of privilege,” she said.
“Not every student has access to the internet, has family members at home sitting next to them as they try to go online, have parents or family members fluent in English who have the background of our educational system,” she said. “We have listened to their voices and based on what we have heard, we would not feel comfortable not trying” to offer some in-person learning experiences this summer, Tovar said.
In the Portland area, Hillsboro will be an exception. Most districts, including Beaverton, North Clackamas and West Linn-Wilsonville, say they’re converting all their summer programs to distance learning that will rely exclusively on online educator outreach, as well as packets and boxes sent to students’ homes.
Varied Approaches In Oregon’s Largest Districts
In Beaverton, for example, budget constrictions as well as health concerns limited what the district decided it could offer. But officials are trying to offer the same number and duration of summer learning programs as in ordinary times, said Paul Ottum, director of flexible and online learning.
“We much prefer in-class experiences across the board but decided on remote learning due to safety, logistic, planning and cost considerations,” he said. “Summer programs are an important part of maintaining and strengthening connections with our students and families. This year with the closure and potential disruptions in learning, we felt it was more important than ever to continue summer programming. But we didn’t see a viable way to plan and implement the social distancing, contact tracing and other guidelines necessary to offer in-person programs in the short timeframe we had.”
Portland Public Schools plans to offer summer learning to 3,500 to 4,000 students, just as in a normal summer, according to spokesperson Karen Werstein. But almost all students will be limited to a virtual learning environment, she said. The district will target high school students who need to make up credits, special education students whose individual learning plans call for year-round services and students at eight high-poverty elementary and K-8 schools.
Werstein said leaders at Oregon’s largest district are hoping to have an in-person element to three of their programs: its Head Start summer program for students with big learning needs who are transitioning into kindergarten; an arts academy for middle school students in underserved communities; and a math and sports camp for male students of color. District officials are still working on those plans, she said.
Salem-Keizer leaders also decided they will have to rely heavily on distance learning in their summer offerings for as many as 5,000 students who will start kindergarten, middle school or high school this fall. But, said spokesperson Lillian Govus, the district plans to have many of those students visit schools in person and meet face-to-face with teachers on a limited basis.
For a couple of thousand students about to start high school, “we are looking at schools offering between one to three visits to the school, if possible, to become familiar with the school and some of the ninth-grade staff and administration,” she said.
Rising sixth-graders entering at least five Salem-Keizer middle schools will get a week of in-person introduction to middle school in August, she said, with students attending in groups of 10 or fewer during alternating days or hours depending on the school.
A few Salem-Keizer elementary schools with very high rates of child poverty plan to offer in-person Jump Start classes for up to 10 soon-to-be kindergartners, she said. Most elementary schools will offer a distance learning version of Jump Start, she said. But each participating 5-year-old and their parents will have the opportunity to come to school to pick up a learning kit and Chromebook, meet the kindergarten teacher face-to-face and get a quick school tour, Govus said.
Extremes: Some Districts Scale Way Back, Others Expand
Some districts are dialing summer programs way back. One of those is the Centennial School District, located in Multnomah County, the last in Oregon to apply to reopen amid coronavirus.
Given safety and budget concerns, it is canceling nearly all the summer programs it normally offers, including programs for students entering kindergarten and high school and enrichment programs targeting low-income and minority students, said Tina Acker, director of curriculum and student learning. The district will only offer online credit recovery for high school students who failed one or more classes and limited programming for migrant students this year, she said.
“Our top priority is the safety of our students, families and staff,” she said.
For educators at Warm Springs K-8 Academy, where 88% of students identify as Native American and many live on the sprawling Warm Springs Reservation, connecting with students and families via phone and computer this spring took a lot of energy, Principal Bambi Van Dyke said. So no summer outreach is planned.
“We aren’t having teachers call kids, we’re giving them a little break from all of that,” Van Dyke said. “It’s a well-deserved break on both ends.”
By contrast, in the Baker school district, which serves about 1,700 students in Baker City and the surrounding area, roughly a quarter of elementary students will learn face-to-face at school with teachers this summer.
Five years ago, the district realized its summer offerings weren’t preventing students from losing ground over the summer, so it upped its game, said Assistant Superintendent Betty Palmer. It turned to foundations and other local partners that helped it build robust summer learning programs, she said.
Located in a county in which only one resident has tested positive for coronavirus as of Monday, the Baker school system plans to offer the same summer learning programs for elementary, middle and high school students with only modest changes. Classes will be smaller and will remain isolated, with one teacher and 10 or fewer students interacting only with one another.
District officials recognized that not all Baker students were able to fully engage in distance learning after schools closed, so they are eager to get students back in front of teachers to make up for lost time and build new skills, she said.
“We are prioritizing enrollment for students who were unable to fully benefit from the distance learning for all educational format,” Palmer said. “We have been able to make the programs fun as well as strategically academic.”
Rob Manning and Elizabeth Miller of Oregon Public Broadcasting, Eder Campuzano of The Oregonian/OregonLive, Nik Streng of the Ontario Argus Observer and Jackson Hogan of The Bulletin contributed to this report.