POLK COUNTY – Students in public schools in Polk County have or will be soon headed back to classrooms after a year of mostly learning at home.
Dallas School District will begin its plan to bring back its youngest students for a hybrid of distance and in-person instruction early in March.
Superintendent Andy Bellando said the plan has been met with a mixed bag of responses from parents.
“I couldn’t give you proportions necessarily, but I’ve heard from all three camps,” Bellando said while presenting the plan to the Dallas School Board at its Feb. 8 meeting. “I’ve heard from those that wish we would have (have had on-site instruction) weeks ago. There are some that I’ve heard from who are saying that this is too early, and they aren’t comfortable with it yet, and some that are saying it is just right.”
Bellando said the guidance he used is based on COVID-19 case counts and a commitment to not unveiling a plan until he was sure that it wouldn’t have to be changed.
He wanted to see at least two weeks of declining numbers within Polk County before implementing a schedule to return students to classes at least part time, starting with the youngest students. He also wanted the case counts to be below a certain threshold before releasing a plan.
“I think now we’ve seen enough … refining of the guidance to a point now where it appears to be stable. The case numbers in Polk County are declining,” Bellando said. “Now below the 350 cases per 100,000 residents, so we are in a position to say let’s put a plan out and let’s make it available to you and the public.”
The plan will start with on-site orientation for kindergarten and first-grade students beginning on Monday. The orientation will give students and parent a preview of how the on-site days will work, as well as review safety guidelines. A week later, Dallas’ two youngest grades will be welcomed back for hybrid instruction, with two days per week of on-site instruction.
The district surveyed parents beginning Feb. 9 to see how many students would be returning to classrooms so schools could prepare, and transportation routes could be established.
Second and third graders begin orientation on March 15 and return for hybrid instruction after spring break on March 29. Also, on March 29, Whitworth, the district’s fourth and fifth-grade school, begins orientation. Students will start hybrid instruction on April 5.
“It takes a few weeks to roll this out. We’ve also commented to the community all along the way that we are not going to turn on a dime. It’s not because we don’t want to; it’s really we can’t,” Bellando said. “The logistics of transportation, staffing, building operations, registration for busing, really do require us to work into this in a progressive fashion.”
Work continues on a timeline to bring students in grades six through 12, though no dates have been released yet.
“Comprehensive distance learning with limited in-person would continue for 6 through 12, but additional planning is occurring,” Bellando said. “I’ve met with both (Dallas High Principal) Steve Spencer and (LaCreole Middle School Principal) Jamie Richardson over the last week to discuss what some of those could or would look like. We do have options.”
One of those options is what Bellando referred to as a “super lipi” model, which would allow for distance learning in the mornings and a rotating schedule to bring students in for in-person learning in the afternoons. Bellando wrote in a Feb. 19 letter to parents that more information will be available the end of this week.
Bellando said the plan will move forward as long as COVID-19 numbers do not spike. If that happens, the plan will be paused, though students who begin attending hybrid classes will not be sent back to distance learning only.
“We’ve been told by ODE that we are allowed to continue our hybrid or on-site model even if the metrics were to go up again, but we really are not to be adding any additional grades if the metrics do spike or increase,” Bellando said.
He said the outline is manageable, and accomplishes a long-held goal of getting students back in class.
“I believe this plan is dependable. I think that it is an opportunity for us to provide some onsite instruction for students, which we clearly heard from a number of parents that they are hungry for, students are hungry for,” Bellando said. “This plan will allow us to see that happen soon.”
Students in Perrydale and Falls City have already started to return to classes, though the ice storm and subsequent power outages threw a wrench into those plans temporarily.
Falls City planned to have students in elementary grades begin half-day in-person instruction on Feb. 16. Starting Monday, Falls City High School will have students attend school two days a week on an alternating schedule.
“We are very excited to start bringing students back to the building for in-person instruction beginning March 1,” Falls City Superintendent Art Houghtaling wrote in a message to parents posted to Facebook on Monday.
In Perrydale, students are returning three grades at a time each week until all students are on a hybrid schedule starting Monday.
“Once we return from spring break on March 29, we plan bringing all students on campus each day,” read a letter to parents regarding Perrydale’s return plans. “Due to the space created by moving classrooms, the addition of modular classrooms, and the hiring of new staff, we will be one of the few schools in the Willamette Valley that will be able accommodate all students every day during the remaining 2.5 months of school.”