Feb. 3, 2021 — Between Jan. 25 and 29, Siuslaw School District held six meetings to go over the school reopening plans outlined under new metrics released by Oregon Department of Education (ODE) and Oregon Health Authority (OHA) the week before. Three of the meetings were community forums, one was a meeting specifically with families with second- and third-graders, one was a special meeting of the Siuslaw School Board and the last was a meeting of the Siuslaw Elementary Planning Team, using all the information gathered throughout the week.
Siuslaw Superintendent Andy Grzeskowiak and Siuslaw Elementary Principal Mike Harklerode led the meetings. Part of this is because primary schools across the state are being allowed to permit more students back on campus in a new hybrid model. The older grades will remain in limited in-person instruction (LIPI) until a successful roll out has been achieved at Siuslaw Elementary. In addition, some students will elect to remain in comprehensive distance learning (CDL), the method used by most schools across the state since last March.
“CDL has been challenging — a source of learning and struggle,” Grzeskowiak said. “Returning to in-person learning, while managing the risks well, is a priority, as well as access to high-quality, culturally-sustaining practices and services that are essential for students to reach their full potential.”
According to Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance, counties must have a positive COVID-19 case rate between 200 and 350 people per 100,000 to allow for an elementary on-site and hybrid transition. The guidelines suggest starting with younger students and adding additional grades over time.
Grzeskowiak reported that Lane County was within that range at around 280 cases per 100,000 for the previous week.
“Right now, with the change in the metrics, that would allow for an elementary roll in to begin more regular on-site operations,” he said to the board on Thursday. “We're on track to meet the governor's deadline.”
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown listed Feb. 15 as a target date for school districts to aim for in getting elementary students back on campus. However, guidance from ODE and OHA didn’t get finalized until Jan. 19. At just two weeks away from the Feb. 15 target date, Siuslaw is looking at an actual target date of Feb. 22.
Once the district has proven success in phasing in the elementary students, middle and high school students will be brought back to campus by grade level.
“We'll focus on entry screenings, face coverings, cohorting and physical distancing,” Grzeskowiak said.
To maintain six feet of distance between people, there needs to be 35 square feet per person, per classroom. The schools will have a maximum capacity of 250 students in each building in a day. Most classes at SMS and SHS can fit 12 students, with SES able to fit 14 kids.
However, school buses have a maximum of 20 students per bus. That is where much of the discussion throughout the week focused.
As Siuslaw families decide if they will want their students back on campus, the district has to reconfigure school bus routes. In addition, each bus will have multiple runs throughout a day, requiring sanitation each time.
Harklerode said, “One of the things that's keeping us moving very slowly are all students in the district deserve a ride to school if they want to come to school, but not all students in the district will have space on the bus to get to school each day.”
The transportation department and other school staff are working on this diligently. Some of that is through calling each family and determining actual needs.
“From an equity standpoint, we need to make sure that everybody has an equal opportunity and equal access to come into school,” Harklerode said.
The district’s forums, held virtually over Zoom, allowed for people to listen to a presentation from the administrators and ask questions about reopening, vaccines, priorities and more. A big question was about timing, and how reopening schools across the state doesn’t coincide with the governor’s timeline for vaccinating teachers.
According to Grzeskowiak, Lane County has so far only received 20 percent of what it needs to give first doses of the two-part COVID-19 vaccine. Out of 8,200 public school staff in Lane county, only 1,700 doses were administered as of Jan. 29.
“Vaccinations for Oregon educators began last week. Supplies are limited and will be offered as they become available,” Grzeskowiak said.
The priority will be for Siuslaw educators working with students in LIPI and will be part of the hybrid model. It will take three weeks to get all the teachers their first dose. Second doses of the vaccine should come after three weeks.
At the special meeting of the Siuslaw School Board on Jan. 28, board members talked more about vaccines and the importance of protecting school staff.
“I want to make sure that the teachers have a chance to be able to get the vaccines, and the vaccines have a chance to be able to develop the immunity,” said Director Paul Burns.
The current timeline also has spring break coming soon after the implementation of the hybrid model at SES.
Currently, all district schools have students coming in for LIPI. After winter break, SES invited the entire fourth and fifth grades to come in for on-site learning each day.
“Bringing students back under LIPI, the fourth- and fifth-grade team felt that their students could benefit greatly, and they wanted to jump early on bringing those students in,” Harklerode said.
The governor asked that schools prioritize bringing in second and third grades, so that is the next target group for the district.
“There was a tremendous amount of work internally that had to happen when we brought just fourth and fifth grade, and we need to replicate that two grades at a time,” Harklerode said.
The district will do its best to communicate clearly and keep it a positive experience for everyone involved.
“We want this to still be a warm and welcoming, ‘We're happy to see you’ place,” he added.
While details are still being handled by the Planning Team, it is looking like students will be at school for four to five hours on two days each week. This is more than the 60 to 90 minutes for LIPI. In addition, the school day will be built around the transportation plan that is also still in the works.
The district will also be offering CDL for students who will not be returning to campus, either for health reasons within their households or because the method is working well for the student.
By maintaining CDL, teachers will continue to see students who choose to remain at home.
Siuslaw teacher Alyssa Cargill, who attended the Jan. 25 community forum, added that teachers were looking forward to seeing more students in person.
“It is invaluable time, even just two hours a week, because I'm getting to know that kid better,” Cargill said. “He or she is not just a face on a screen and not just paperwork submitted to Seesaw. Even though it's such a small amount of in-person time, it really is invaluable to build those relationships and to get a better sense of what they need from us online.”
Siuslaw began offering LIPI in December and has since expanded to more than 100 students on campus throughout the week.
“Believe me, folks, we miss your kids,” Harklerode said. “We miss having them here. It's driving us a little batty not having the kids. I can say, too, in the limited number of kids who have come already, those days have been the first days this year where I have happy kids, happy teachers and happy parents. It's been a rare event this year, in this climate, where everybody's happy. But when those kids do start to come, even in small numbers, it's been a game changer for a lot of them.”
If the county case rate dips below 200 positive cases per 100,000, restrictions would be lifted with more student time allowed on campus.
“Our local count is trending down a bit and the county is stable,” Grzeskowiak noted.
Ready Schools, Safe Learners shows that schools can completely come back, still with CDL for those who require it, when the county case rate is below 50 per 100,000. However, if Lane County surpasses 350 cases per 100,000, the whole district will return to CDL.
“We are likely to operate in more than one hybrid model through this year,” Harklerode said. “We will have this initial starting point for returning students to campus so we can get some procedures down and plans in case we can safely expand.”
The district will also take all necessary steps to prevent an outbreak and plan for potential contact tracing. It will monitor cohorts for five weeks to aid with that.
“Concerns about an outbreak are valid, and we have to be ready for the next step,” Harklerode said.
As the week wrapped up, Siuslaw School Board made a resolution to direct district staff to safely and quickly get students back in the classroom, within state guidelines. Each director affirmed this desire.
“I want to see our kids back in schools as soon as possible, just like everyone else,” said Director Diana Pimlott. “Really, that's our focus, that's our concentration, that's as it should be.”
There was some debate throughout the meeting on the school’s goals, especially as not all teachers will be vaccinated by the time students are coming back to campus.
For Director Guy Rosinbaum, “We closed the school to protect the community,” he said, referring to the March 2020 decision to switch to CDL.
He wanted to make sure that families were making informed decisions about allowing students back on campus, especially as students will return to their households, where family members could get exposed to COVID-19.
Director Suzanne Mann-Heintz agreed.
“The emotional aspects of this are huge. As we worry about the grandparent who may or may not be exposed, we heard testimony about a suicide attempt amongst one of our high school kids. And there are social, relationship and mental health issues that are going on in our middle school and high school kids — probably for younger kids, too,” she said.
Ultimately, the board encouraged district staff to follow through with plans to safely and effectively return to campus.
“We have to follow the guidance and do the best we can to get kids into school as safely and for as much time as possible,” Mann-Heintz stated. “The effort that we're putting out is working for some kids just fine, but there are lots of kids that are getting lost with the distance learning.”
Siuslaw School District will continue to build on the methods it put together for fourth and fifth grades as it brings in next second and third grades and then kindergarten and first grade.
“This is the third week (for fourth and fifth grade) and it's been going very well,” Harklerode said. “We have systems and structures in place for how to move through the building, how to bring them in with the small numbers we have. … Doing that in small batches was very helpful. It's going to be that much more helpful with the younger students.
“It's been working well on the super small scale. Now we’re trying to make sure that it’s going to work as we scale it up.”
Siuslaw will finalize its reopening plans with the Planning Team. Families will be notified of any updates.
School Board President Bob Sneddon said, “I just want to acknowledge the efforts and the input of staff and also the input from parents and students. We've had a lot of good input from members of the community in one way or another. And I really, really appreciate the hard work on planning for this.”
For more reading on Siuslaw’s plans, visit www.siuslaw.k12.or.us/school-reopening-plans-materials.