High school’s in-person learning going better than expected
Eagle Point School District staff members Tyson Wolfe and Phil Ortega (right) check a student’s health Thursday before allowing him in the high school. Eagle Point High School is one of the earliest large high schools to open to in-person learning.
Junior Hannah Narramore knows the stakes for proper mask usage and social distancing so she is extra careful now that her school is open for in-person learning.
“I take this more seriously because I want school to stay open and this is important to me,” she said.
Eagle Point High School in southern Oregon’s Jackson County welcomed back students Jan. 25, making it one of the state’s first large high schools to return to in-person learning. Eagle Point School District administrators and teachers, even ones who were opposed, say it is going better than they expected. Students generally say they are glad to be in school and mostly feel safe.
When Gov. Kate Brown announced in late December that she was putting the decision to resume in-person education in local leaders’ hands, districts scrambled to make plans. The resulting approaches run the spectrum, from rapid resumption of in-person learning to phased-in returns stretching into the spring.
Eagle Point welcomed back all its roughly 3,600 students Jan. 25, with K-5 in full days and grades 6-12 with a hybrid alternating-day schedule. Jackson County had 291 coronavirus cases per 100,000 at the time, a recent dip that put it in the orange transition phase of the advisory school metrics.
Although school reopenings tend to create controversy over safety, data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that in-person learning has not contributed to the spread of COVID-19.
Eagle Point High School has a little more than 1,000 enrolled students, and roughly 800 opted for in-person learning. As the morning sun rose Thursday, students lined the sidewalk waiting to enter the high school. Here and there a pair or three stood side by side, but mostly the students were spaced out. Staff monitored the sidewalks.
Eagle Point set up four entrances to avoid bunching. Students were greeted at the door with a temperature check and a quick question about their health. The hallways were divided into traffic patterns with tall orange poles and yellow ropes. Colored arrows on the floor added extra guidance. Paper signs showed the max occupancy for each room.
Junior Kylie Ogg said she was nervous about coming back. Her mom has health issues, and she was worried the other students wouldn’t follow the rules.
Seeing her peers mostly being responsible has her feeling less anxious, she said, and she is happy to be learning in class again.
“It’s just rules, and you get called out if you break them,” said junior Diego Flores. He said he wants to protect his family and he doesn’t want to go back to distance learning. He said he was too easily distracted when working from home.
“If I was home, I would be failing,” he said.
Principal Heather Marinucci said she could count on one hand the number of students she has talked to about masks. She said the students are doing better than many adults you see in stores.
“It has become a social norm,” she said. “They have had mask requirements for months.”
The district has tried to help parents, creating consistent rules for all schools. District staff have flow charts to guide their responses when students show any symptoms. The district has worked hard with videos and emails to educate parents on when to keep their children home.
Staff built a schedule so that siblings in middle and high school are in class on the same days, and the attendance system is used to quickly alert other schools if a sibling has symptoms.
The district has continued to hone its plans, seeking staff, student and community input.
High School science teacher Sean Rogers has been among the more vocal critics. On the first week of class, he had administrative permission to teach lessons on respiratory diseases.
Rogers’ wife is in a high-risk group, and they have been careful.
“Science is my jam,” he said. “I’ve spent the entire outbreak trying to figure it out.”
From the perspective of pure science, he said, the school should remain closed. But he knows there are also considerations of student and community needs and academics.
“There is no correct answer,” he said.
Rogers said he understands the decision even if he doesn’t agree with it. He called distance learning a “train wreck” and said that with online learning, “everything wonderful about education is gone.”
Kindergarten assistant Amanda O’Sullivan is president of the association representing classified and educator staff.
She said she didn’t think the district was fully prepared to open and wished they could have pushed back the start date. She said there are still a lot of unanswered questions about procedures, and she would like more teacher input.
But she also conceded that there was no way the school could ever be fully prepared with so many unknowns. She said teachers are in a tough spot: They know the need better than anyone, but they also are being asked to take the risks to their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.
Teacher-risk mitigations, especially vaccinations, have been a point of contention. Unions around the state have argued that schools should wait for teachers to receive both doses, which takes about a month, before opening.
Brown moved school staff to near the front of the line for vaccinations to help speed returning students to classrooms. Eagle Point educators were able to get their first shots this past week, with the district offering professional leave for appointments.
School Board Chair Nita Lundberg said the board fully supports Superintendent Andy Kovach. Not only do the students need in-person school for academics and mental health, she said, but the community needs schools back so working parents can support their families.
Kovach became superintendent March 12, the same day Brown announced the first closure of schools because of coronavirus. He has worked hard to build trust, transparency and respect with his staff, but he said there is only so much planning that can be done.
Students are falling behind, and in-person learning is the best way to catch them up.
“We looked at the data, and we believe we can operate our schools safely,” he said. “Are we going to consult our fears or tap into our courage?”
Community reaction has been mostly positive. Teachers say the tension level has gone down a bit as they have been able to interact with students.
“People were scared to return,” said Kovach. “Then the kids came, and it was euphoric.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA