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Hybrid models dominate fall school reopening plans
(Graphic created by the Oregon Department of Education)
One size – 35 square feet per student – does not fit all.
The minimum classroom space requirement for physical distancing presents an inescapable math problem for reopening schools. Some schools simply don’t have the room to bring in all their students at once.
The space problem is one of many challenges as school leaders strain to build new education models while being battered by the coronavirus pandemic’s constantly shifting requirements.
Districts across the state are considering things such as quarantine protocols, mask suggestions, busing, meals, staffing requirements and, above all, student safety, knowing the rules could change suddenly.
“The pony is still bucking,” said Neah-Kah-Nie School District Superintendent Paul Erlebach. “We don’t know what is going to happen a month from now.”
The Oregon Department of Education said it will update its “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidance July 21. School districts must have an “Operational Blueprint for Reentry” for school board and community review by Aug. 17.
School leaders are collaborating with their local health agencies, surveying parents and consulting staff to figure out the best and safest options for as much in-person teaching as possible.
Most school districts seem to be considering a hybrid model, with students alternating between in-person classes and remote learning. Districts are also trying to offer full-time distance learning for medically fragile children and students who don’t feel comfortable coming to school.
Earlier in the summer, Neah-Kah-Nie leaders thought the district could open to all students, Erlebach said. The coastal district north of Tillamook began working on a plan with additional teachers and using spaces such as the cafeteria and the music room as classrooms.
Erlebach said they approached their planning by looking at the day through the eyes of different members of their community, such as bus drivers, school nurses, parents, food workers, teachers and, of course, students. They also applied an equity lens, looking at the needs of their most vulnerable and disadvantaged populations.
They asked questions such as should a school nurse meet students at the door? Should students line up to come into school or get on a bus? Should the music teacher only teach virtually so she doesn’t have to rotate through classes? How do they provide meals for students doing distance learning?
“We spent considerable hours throwing pasta against the wall to see what would stick,” Erlebach said.
The district has also spent time considering how to train staff, students and parents to follow the COVID-19 protocols.
“You can’t open up a middle school and just tell 200 middle schoolers to report to first period,” he said. “It’s not going to work.”
As infections have increased this summer, though, the district has had to reconsider its full opening plan, Erlebach said. Student safety is his overriding concern, and everything else they do must bend to that.
“It all comes with a price, and safety is the No. 1 priority,” he said. “We had to change our priorities. Before it was academic, and now it’s safety, social emotional, and then academic.”
The Dallas School District is working on a plan to divide all grades into two groups, one attending school Monday and Thursday, the other on Tuesday and Friday, according to Kim Kellison, director of teaching and learning. Wednesdays would be used for things such as planning, professional development and offering extra student support through distance learning or in the buildings.
“I wish it were all in, but we don’t have the space,” Kellison said.
For the most part, students would have in-person classes on one day and then distance learning that would involve practice, projects, videos or other activities that reinforced lessons. The district west of Salem is still working out how it will divide its teachers, Kellison said.
Teachers are attending training this summer to learn how to make distance learning more rigorous and engaging. School leaders are also looking at creating new grading structures.
As students return, there will be extra focus on students’ social and emotional health.
“I’m thinking this fall we’re going to have some students with some mental health needs that we haven’t been able to address,” Kellison said.
ODE recommends student cohorts and limiting teacher and classroom switches, but Kellison said they bumped up against some practical problems. Some science classes, for instance, need to be held in a laboratory room.
The district also still wants to have electives such as music or career and technical education classes, she said.
Kellison said the district considered creating morning and afternoon cohorts five days a week but that would have doubled their transportation costs.
The district is still trying to figure out how to help working parents with child care problems deal with the schedule, Kellison said. Younger students, who already struggle the most with distance learning, will have even less support as family members return to jobs.
Community concerns about child care are part of the reason Hood River County School District’s planning prioritizes getting grades K-5 in schools five days a week, said Superintendent Rich Polkinghorn.
Community support for operating levies has brought down class sizes, enabling them to consider getting the younger kids in school, he said.
The district serves a mostly rural county, making transportation one of its biggest hurdles. Some students spend more than an hour on the bus. Polkinghorn said the district is looking closely at ODE’s busing requirements versus its recommendations and reaching out to parents to see if they can drive their kids to school.
For grades 6-12, the district is looking at an A/B rotation Tuesday through Friday, with Monday set aside for planning and possibly small-group interventions, he said. He said the district is still working through several models, including keeping students in the same room all day or having a more typical school day but with half the students.
“There is not going to be normal school,” Polkinghorn said. “Even if we get students back in school it’s going to look very different.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA