After three weeks of the 2020-21 school year, the Nyssa School Board may be taking legal action against the Oregon Department of Education following frustrations with distance learning.
During Monday night’s meeting, the Nyssa School Board of Directors voted unanimously to seek legal counsel and find more information on their options in regards to the situation with distance learning and potentially reopening the school despite the state’s guidelines.
The School Board did not directly say that they would be seeking to file a lawsuit against the state, opting to say the legal counsel will be to weigh their options. But the board did bring up Adrian School District multiple times during discussion.
During its August meeting, the Adrian School Board of Directors voted to seek legal counsel with the ultimate goal to be the Adrian School Board suing ODE for “failing to allow [the board] to provide an adequate education to the students in [Adrian School District].”
During the Adrian School Board meeting on Sept. 10, board member Jake Speelmon said he was hoping to hear back from his legal counsel in the next few days with an update.
Nyssa Board members Brett Johnson and Bob Fehlman, and Superintendent Darren Johnson all said they talked with representatives from Adrian, with Fehlman saying he spoke with Adrian School Board Chairman Ryan Martin recently. The discussion started with Brett Johnson’s report, where he voiced his concerns over distance learning and the metrics that the county needs to meet in order for students to return to the classrooms this year.
For Malheur County, where the population is over 30,000 but the population density is fewer than six people per square mile, the county needs to meet a metric of fewer than 30 new cases of COVID-19 over a three week period (and fewer than half of those cases being in the last seven days) and a test positivity rate lower than 5%.
Johnson said part of his frustration comes from seeing how students in Payette County (he is a physician in Fruitland) are able to go to to school. Currently, Fruitland School District is back in school via a hybrid model (the student population is split in half with students alternating days between in person and online schooling) while Payette and New Plymouth school district are fully in-person.
“There’s got to be some push back,” Johnson said. “We’re just getting pushed to the side and it’s the students who are suffering. And nobody is going to push back? What are we waiting for?”
Johnson also opened the floor to Nyssa principals, with middle school principal Luke Cleaver asking that the board take into account that if the schools are going to reopen, then they need to discuss it with the staff.
“Can you win a lawsuit against the state? And can you win a lawsuit against twenty teachers?” Cleaver posed. “Can you make the whole staff come to work when they legally don’t have to? I’d love to have the kids back. Sure. But is this the right avenue?”
During his school update, Cleaver said he was happy with the way things were going with distance learning in the fall.
“Compared to the first attempt at distance learning, in the spring, it’s night and day,” Cleaver said.
Cleaver said it’s a major learning experience for the students, with many students being in charge of their own education and having to reach out to teachers and administrators when they are having trouble with something.
“We’ve got a lot of middle school students that are growing up really really quickly,” Cleaver said. “Especially when it comes to talking to adults.”
Currently, Nyssa (like most of Malheur County’s schools) is fully in comprehensive distance learning.
The schools are bringing in small groups of students (which is allowed under ODE guidance) and Darren Johnson said it is mostly the special education students who are coming in, as well as students in career and technical education classes, and music classes.
Johnson said attendance is good at the schools. At the end of the spring term, attendance was about 93%. According to high school Vice Principal Tammy O’Rourke, attendance is about 85%, saying that the students who are not attending class generally being habitual students who were not attending school in the past. Nyssa High School sent out 16 truancy letters to students this past week, O’Rourke said.