DALLAS/FALLS CITY – Schools in Dallas and Falls City are making a shift once again, but this time to bringing students back to classrooms sooner rather than later.
On Dec. 23 Gov. Kate Brown issued a letter to school and health officials in the state that she would like to see students back in in-person classes by Feb. 15, and left the decision of what is safe and appropriate to local districts and health authorities.
As of Jan. 1, the metrics used to decide whether a school can open to any level of in-person instruction are advisory, not mandatory.
“Moving forward, decisions to resume in-person instruction must be made locally, district-by-district, school-by-school. In addition to schools continuing to adhere to required health and safety protocols and working in close consultation with their local public health authority in understanding and considering the metrics, teachers, school staff, parents and students should be engaged in this decision-making process to allow schools to make the best choice for their community and their students,” Brown said in an announcement of the change.
The timing of the announcement, made at the beginning of winter break, has made planning difficult. Still, local leaders are encouraged by Brown’s change of mind.
“While the timing was not ideal, I do believe the governor’s decision is a step in the right direction,” said Dallas Superintendent Andy Bellando. “It is challenging to do a lot with this information right now while teachers and most administrators are away from school during winter break.”
Bellando said planning began at the administrative level last week and continues now that school has resumed.
“We’ll continue our collaborative efforts with leadership from each union and the Polk County Health Department,” Bellando said.
He will update the Dallas School Board on the latest COVID metrics and plans at its meeting on Monday.
“It is essential to obtain board input about our re-opening efforts and timelines,” he said.
While eager to get students back in classrooms, Bellando said the district can’t make moves too quickly.
“It is essential to me that we are purposeful, safe, equitable and sustainable with our re-opening efforts,” he said. “Our plan must be reliable and not have to change after students begin returning.”
Limited in-person learning will resume on Monday for those students who need it. Dallas was forced to end the restricted on-site teaching in early December due to a sharp increase in cases. Bellando said parents of those students will be contacted this week.
He said the district still has an obligation to operate safely and within the parameters outlined in Oregon Department of Education’s Ready Schools, Safe Learners COVID-19 guidelines.
“I am hopeful we can first bring our youngest students (beginning with kindergarten) back to school as soon as possible with a hybrid or limited in person model of instruction,” Bellando said. “The earliest we could do the same with high school and middle school students is Feb. 14, the beginning of second semester. This would also allow us to serve struggling seniors and support their pathway to graduation.”
In Falls City, the district has had about half of the elementary and middle school students attending limited in-person instruction, and with the change, will consider expanding that to the high school.
Superintendent Art Houghtaling said the district will seek input from teachers, staff, students and families in planning what to do next. He said the priority will be bringing back younger students first.
“When we do return for in-person instruction we will start with our pre-k through third or fourth (grade), with as many students that would like to come, and for the families that choose to keep their child home, we will provide distance learning for them,” Houghtaling said.
Brown also noted in her announcement that people should continue to be vigilant about stopping the spread of the virus to make decisions to bring back students easier. Teachers are on the priority list to receive the COVID-19 vaccine early, and Brown has advocated that schools develop testing protocols to identify positive cases and those potentially exposed.
“As 2021 approaches and we look to the remaining school year just over the horizon, it is clear that the greatest gift we can give to Oregon’s children this holiday season is to redouble our efforts to act responsibly and reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. Our students’ learning, resilience, and future well-being depend on all of us,” Brown said. “Each and every Oregonian must do our part now to be disciplined and vigilant, to socially distance, wear facial coverings, avoid large gatherings, and follow other necessary public health requirements.”
While decisions are left to local officials, continued spread of the virus may leave many students on distance learning platforms.
“The alternative is for Oregonians to remain at risk from the disease for far longer, and for perhaps 90% of Oregon’s students to continue on the unpromising path of spending the remainder of their school year locked out by this virus from their classrooms and youth activities where they best learn, grow, and find connection, safety, and support,” Brown said.