Everything else is second to getting students back in school, Oregon leaders say
Schools’ fall plans are mutating as fast as the coronavirus pandemic, with the ramifications just as unpredictable.
“There is the sense that anything could change at any moment,” Crook County Superintendent Sara Johnson said the day before Gov. Kate Brown announced a vaccine mandate for school workers.
With Oregon schools opening over the next few weeks, education leaders are scrambling to develop plans for a school year with COVID-19. At the start of the summer, they were promised they could make local decisions for health and safety. Brown said the more contagious and dangerous COVID-19 delta variant changed that, requiring decisions to protect the whole interconnected state education and health systems.
Districts are planning to return students to full-time in-person instruction every day, most for the first time in more than a year. School leaders also must figure out how to deal with students who won’t follow the governor’s mask mandate while developing contingency plans for losing staff who refuse to get vaccinated.
“Everywhere you turn, something is added,” Johnson said. “You just have to keep your eyes on the goal: Get schools open and get kids in full time.”
Excitement is running high as educators get back to their calling, but anxiety is also rampant, as everyone waits for the next hammer to fall.
Masks have been the most visible decision for COVID-19-weary communities, but schools must plan with an eye on coronavirus guidelines for everything from lunch schedules to quarantines and remote learning options.
The Oregon Department of Education extended the deadline four days to Friday, Aug. 27, for schools’ “Safe Return to In-Person Instruction and Continuity of Services Plan.” Even districts that have completed their plans, though, know that the ever-evolving pandemic could shake everything up again.
Johnson isn’t even sure yet how students without masks will be greeted at the schoolhouse doors Sept. 7. Last week’s mask mandate clarification, although helpful for its specificity, upended the district’s plans yet again.
Initially, Johnson thought the district would have a few days at the start of school to work with “grace and patience” with students who refused to wear masks. The latest “Ready Schools, Safe Learners Resiliency Framework” clearly states schools cannot teach students in person if they aren’t wearing a face covering. If students refuse, schools can offer remote learning.
Johnson said the district is tentatively planning to send students who refuse to wear masks to the district office for further engagement because school administrators will have their hands full. Johnson said that online school won’t be an option for students who did not do well with it last school year.
Johnson is among the school leaders who called for local control as their communities demanded that masks be optional.
“I’m not against guidance or science; I’m just working to be responsive to the community,” Johnson said. “I’m not trying to buck the system. Given the flexibility, we will match our local hopes and dreams as much as we can. We can’t match that right now.”
She said the most important thing is to have the children in the classrooms to learn face to face and the district is willing to do almost anything to achieve that.
The vaccine mandate will make that harder. District leaders around Oregon say they may not have enough teachers, bus drivers and custodial staff for schools to function.
As of Monday, only 54% of Crook County staff were vaccinated, Johnson said, and two teachers had already quit over the mandate.
“In all reality, we are just going to have to respond in the moment,” Johnson said. “If a first-grade teacher quits, I will have to redistribute those children and do higher class loads.”
Crook County School Board Chair Scott Cooper said some board members don’t like the mask mandate any more than angry parents but the district will comply.
“Most of our kids will go along and be compliant with doing the right thing because they respect their teachers and they respect each other and they are concerned about their own health,” he said. “Our kids will save us.”
He said there will be a small group who will not comply, no matter what, and that group will likely stop attending public schools. Cooper added he expects the rules to shift under him every week and he also expects the resistance to shift in unexpected ways.
Cooper said sometimes it helps to just listen to parents. He thinks the mask outrage is really a symptom of the fear some people have about their country and their children’s futures.
“They really want to talk about something bigger than just a mask, but they don’t even have the words to describe what they are afraid of, which makes it an impossible conversation to actually have,” he said.
The North Clackamas School District in the Portland area was in the midst of surveying staff, students and parents about reopening plans when the governor’s mask mandate came out, mooting part of the survey.
Although some were passionately divided on masks, there were more areas of commonality, said Shelly Reggiani, executive director of equity, community engagement and communications.
“The first thing that was common among all three: ‘In person, please. This is what our students need,’” she said. Common top priorities included health and safety and a desire for a consistent plan.
The Astoria School District has been training staff to respond professionally and with grace if students don’t wear masks or parents complain. They will have educational materials to share with the students and families.
Astoria Superintendent Craig Hoppes said he has personally called every parent he knows of who has been resistant to students’ wearing masks.
“I want them to understand I can’t control whether they have to have a mask on or not when it’s coming from the state level,” he said. “I just want their kids in school.”
Hoppes said he has concerns about staffing shortages already because of COVID-19 quarantines and the vaccine mandate could make it worse. He doesn’t know what percentage of his staff is vaccinated.
He said switching to remote because of staff shortages would be a “very last option,” though.
“We are going to do everything in our power to stay in school,” Hoppes said. “Everything.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA