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Hybrid learning offers hope and warnings for the next year of COVID-19
Klamath Falls City Schools fifth graders work Monday in the marked-off 35 square feet of space required by the Oregon Department of Education. The district cannot get all its students in classrooms at the same time with the current spacing requirements. (Photo courtesy of Maureen Lundy)
When Oregon schools closed March 16, 2020, Lumbreras was set adrift. This school year started with distance learning, and he couldn’t get the support he needed. His absences piled up, his grades fell and he considered dropping out.
Klamath County School District’s resumption of in-person learning in January threw the junior a lifeline.
School districts are discovering the restorative power of in-person classes as well as hybrid models’ limits. As school leaders stare at year two of the pandemic, they are asking Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Department of Education for rules changes so they can more fully serve students.
Lumbreras is doing better, but he says it’s still a struggle on the days he is not in class.
“I feel better about myself and everything when I am in school,” he said.
Klamath County’s two school districts, Klamath Falls City Schools and Klamath County, were among the first districts to offer part-time in-person learning to all students when Brown turned the decision over to local leaders.
Klamath Falls School Board Chair Mychal Amos said they went back immediately because they finally could, even though the county was still in the coronavirus metrics “extreme” risk level. He said they are still watching county metrics closely because lower case rate numbers come with fewer school limits.
ODE’s coronavirus guidances will shape schools for the foreseeable future. ODE warned earlier this month that variables such as new strains, vaccination success, federal recommendations and equity needs would shape rules for the year to come.
ODE is also considering increasing local decision-making power, which would suit Klamath County. School leaders say their community has overwhelmingly, although not unanimously, asked for more in-person learning.
ODE released an updated “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidance Monday. The update changed the metrics in line with Brown’s order that schools offer some in-person learning. It dropped a cohort-size rule but left in place a requirement for 35 square feet per person.
Many district leaders say their classrooms are too small to keep everyone the required 6 feet apart.
Gerard Collins, the Klamath Falls City Schools director of federal programs, said the district could have all its students back in school if the requirement was dropped to 4 feet apart.
Almost a third of Oregon’s students are receiving some in-person learning, according to ODE, and the number has been growing steadily since January.
Parent groups around the state are advocating hard for more. Brown’s order has not mollified them.
Brown’s order provides too many loopholes allowing schools to offer less instruction, said Kim McGair, one of the founders of ED300, a parent group dedicated to getting schools reopened full time. She said it gives too much power to ODE and the Oregon Health Authority. She is also watching the guidance updates closely.
Klamath Falls opted for a morning/afternoon hybrid model. First grade teacher Elizabeth Campbell said the benefits were immediate.
“We saw these kids blossoming,” she said.
Campbell said her 2 hours and 35 minutes a day with students is “packed pillar to post.”
“We are making the most of every minute,” she said, “and our children are really stepping up. No recess breaks. No lunch breaks. It’s pure academic learning.”
In January, about half of Campbell’s students were roughly where they would be expected to be and about half were significantly behind.
“We definitely have our job cut out from now to the end of the year,” she said.
Klamath Falls assesses students at the start, middle and end of the school year. The January assessment showed more students in the lower grades were not meeting benchmarks, according to Maureen Lundy, a Klamath Falls multi-tiered system of support consultant.
“It was the worst year we have ever seen in kindergarten from fall to winter,” she said.
Regular assessments since the start of in-person learning, though, show the lowest performing students making dramatic improvements.
“If kids are here, we’re doing a pretty good job of getting them where they need to be,” she said.
Klamath Falls Director of School Improvement Daymond Monteith said teachers are giving more F’s but they are also giving more A’s because “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” requires flexibility.
Students have time to revise poor tests and turn in late assignments.
“It’s never been easier to get an A,” Monteith said.
With distance learning, students who had a good support network at home or who required little motivation from teachers did OK, but students who struggled for whatever reason at home fell hard.
Monteith said the effect was magnified in the upper grades because older students were more likely to be home alone to fend for themselves.
“Distance learning blew up the bell-shaped curve,” he said. “Either you did OK, or you did really poorly.”
In-person learning allows teachers to offer more motivation and support but there is still inequity when students are home, Monteith said, and until students fully return to class, schools can’t do much about that.
District attendance data show a similar effect based on ODE’s new rules, with more Klamath Falls students showing excellent attendance and more with chronic absences in the first half of the year. ODE’s coronavirus requirements will heavily color data collection for the coming year.
Klamath County Superintendent Glen Szymoniak is no fan of the hybrid model and would like to see the rules loosened.
“The two-days-a-week hybrid model is pretty dismal, but it’s better than not having them come in at all,” he said. Teachers simply can’t teach as much when they have less time, he said.
Schools will need to implement safety rules not only with students in mind, but also with parents, who range from people who don’t believe children should be in school to those who believe masks impinge their freedom.
Ryan Rainville, part of the Klamath Facebook group Parents United to Fully Reopen Schools, said that his personal beliefs aside, he is willing to take any reasonable safety precautions to have more in-person learning.
Rainville said his daughters – a second grader, a sixth grader and a freshman – did fine academically in distance learning. He said the real boost with in-person instruction has been in the social and emotional aspects.
“On the days they go to school, you can see a spike in their happiness,” he said. “You still see the lull on the days they are away.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA