A year later, schools face long road to COVID-19 recovery
Max Jacoby, an enthusiastic learner, was devastated when his third-grade class closed one year ago.
“I had a great teacher,” he said. “All these learning things went down the drain.”
Max is excited again now that the Baker School District has returned him to class, but more than two-thirds of Oregon’s students are still working from home. Some have thrived in distance learning, some have merely gotten by and many have suffered, losing ground academically and hurting mentally.
Late on March 12, 2020, Gov. Kate Brown announced schools would close for two weeks starting March 16 to protect students from the recently declared pandemic. Ever since, schools have been scrambling to plug the drain and keep students safe, engaged and moving forward while the closure rules stretch on and mutate.
Oregon is still under Brown’s emergency declaration, but now the governor has ordered schools to resume in-person learning. Districts are figuring out where education stands, and Baker’s experience provides a case study.
School leaders are trying to get more students in classrooms, the surest way they know to make up for the learning loss and mental trauma of the past year. But state safety rules, cautious teacher unions and families, and the still-present COVID-19 dangers stand in the way.
School data such as attendance, grades, and credit attainment don’t give the whole story. Virtual attendance is a mirage with computer cameras turned off, and comparing grades to last year doesn’t tell how quickly students can catch up or how much student trauma will impact learning for years to come.
Statewide data won’t be available until next school year, and the Oregon Department of Education has requested a waiver this year from federal standardized assessments.
Director Colt Gill said the tests could give “dangerously incorrect data” because of equity issues and the potential for cheating if the tests are taken from home. He said teachers also do not want to spend what little in-person time they have putting students on computers to take a test.
Instead, ODE has provided school districts with interim assessments.
Baker has recorded some learning loss as it has transitioned from the closed schools of spring, through distance learning to increasing in-person instruction.
Baker had roughly double the number of middle school failing grades in the first semester as in recent years. In high school, the first-semester class passing rate was down almost 14 percentage points to 80.8%.
The district increased in-class time for grades 7-12 in January to two days a week. School leaders say teachers are reporting improvements, but it’s hard to catch up when teachers have less time than traditionally.
“Until we get opened up into full in-person school, it’s just a struggle,” School Board Chair Chris Hawkins said. “We can’t provide the services we normally do.”
Baker’s K-6 students returned to every-day in-person instruction Oct. 14. First grade teacher Fawn Robertson said her students’ progress with in-person learning was “incomparable” to distance learning but they are still behind where they would normally be.
The distance learning last school year and this one stunted progress, Robertson said. Baker teachers are also spending more time on enrichment activities rather than core classes than they normally would to re-establish students’ connections to school.
“We all agree these kids are not where they ordinarily would be, not by a longshot,” Robertson said. “On the reverse of that, I feel confident that they will get back.”
Max Jacoby said the distance learning for fourth grade was better than he thought it would be but returning to the classroom was one of the best parts of the school year. He hopes it continues, even with masks and social distancing rules.
“It won’t be as good as beginning of the third grade, but it will still be good because I’ve gotten used to it,” he said.
Lisa Jacoby, mother to Max and eighth grader Olivia, said she did not enter into this school year with high hopes.
“Every morning I woke up hoping it was a bad dream,” she said. “If we could get through this school year, it would be great. But the teachers have been amazing and keep moving the students forward.”
School communities and administrators everywhere have lauded the dedication and adaptability of teachers struggling through an untried classroom environment. At the same time, teacher unions, raising concerns about safety and workloads, have been one of the chief barriers to more in-person learning.
After Brown initially closed the doors last year, she extended the shutdown to the end of April and then to the end of the school year. In late July, Brown announced the coronavirus metrics that shuttered nearly every Oregon school for the start of the school year.
School leaders shifted gears again.
Baker invested about $800,000 to do real-time comprehensive distance learning, according to Superintendent Mark Witty. The district also increased enrollment at its Baker Virtual Academy to serve students at their own pace and at its Eagle Cap Innovative High School to offer a mix of virtual learning classes.
School district enrollment around the state dropped as parents switched to virtual schools or homeschooling. Many districts have expanded their online offerings to appeal to these families.
In January, Brown gave school leaders control over opening decisions, and districts immediately started laying new plans. But the rules in ODE’s “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidance limit some schools’ in-person ability. Baker is among the districts asking that restrictions such as requiring 35 square feet of space per person be loosened.
Witty said the safety rules are vital but students need to get back to normal routines for their social and emotional health as well as the academics.
“We have to weigh heavily on what this is costing our kids,” he said. “We think the risk factor is dramatically lower than six months ago.”
All Baker staff members who want it have been vaccinated, according to Witty. New routines have become ingrained. School staff greet students at the door with temperature checks and health questions. Parents have learned that sick children can’t come to school.
Witty reports no coronavirus outbreaks have started in Baker’s schools.
“That’s a strong message,” he said. “We can manage these things effectively if we are staying to the rules.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA