The Ontario School District Board of Directors will be holding two special meetings on Monday, at 5:30 p.m. and 7 p.m., with the first slated for the board to reconvene to discuss Superintendent Nicole Albisu’s evaluation. The second meeting will be for the board to hear the plan from Ontario High School officials regarding the plan to return to in-person school amidst the COVID-19 pandemic for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.
By the time they meet, there will be about five weeks until school is out for the summer. The third trimester started on March 8, and the school year is slated to wrap up June 4 for all students except seniors, whose last day is slated for May 26 with graduation scheduled for June 2.
Changes keep coming
Staff and admin at the high school had already been working behind the scenes since March 15 to determine how best to apply the most recent updates of the Oregon Department of Education’s Ready Safe Learners guidance regarding keeping kids educated amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Board members attended a meeting the morning of March 18 to hear about those plans, with Derrick Draper saying he believed new guidance was going to be issued the next
day. However, guidance wasn’t updated until March 22, the beginning of spring break.
Before they deliver their plan to the board on March 29, high school staff plan to meet again that morning, according to the school district’s website. At that time they will likely be considering some changes to their proposal. Among things to consider, will include revised physical distancing requirements which shrink the physical distance down to 3-feet between students (unless masks cannot be worn, such as during eating) and revised cohort requirements.
Some of the options being considered
While nothing is set in stone because feedback will be sought from parents and the board ahead of time, staff have still been trying to prepare.
Parents and the board will have the opportunity to hear the full presentation on Monday.
During the meeting on May 18, staff discussed some of the options they had come up with as four preliminary plans. One of these included trying simultaneous instruction of in-person students and those logged in for distance learning. According to slides presented, only about 16.7% of staff supported the simultaneous model.
Another model had students attending all six of their classes in-person in the morning and by CDL in the afternoon, however, the class time would be reduced to 20-minutes, thereby not meeting state requirements.
A third model could potentially be disruptive to students who have jobs, in that it would mean Friday would be a full day of teaching instead of an asynchronous work day.
The model most supported by staff is a dedicated hybrid model which is similar to now in that it offers separate dedicated time for students in-person and distant-learners. According to the slides, 83.4% of staff prefer this method.
During the March 18 meeting, when high school staff were discussing the various approaches — including the preferred method — that might be taken to get more kids back in the classroom, Draper insisted the decision was not up to the staff, but up to the board, and that he had a conversation with a bus driver who told him the spacing was 6 feet between students, not the allotted 3 feet. It is noteworthy that the Argus Observer in January covered the 3-foot spacing happening on Ontario School District buses. Additionally, on March 18 at the urging of school officials to go see for themselves, the Argus asked board members to meet at the bus barn. Corn was the only one who showed up, and during the tour observed how every other seat is taped off to meet that 3-foot spacing.
Superintendent Nicole Albisu during the meeting said they were working on a plan to begin transporting students in every seat on the bus, however, state guidance still “greatly limits our ways in which we can transport.”
Additionally, even if every student could take the bus, teachers pointed out that classrooms still might not be big enough for every student with the 3-foot spacing. Furthermore, they stated that they can’t make kids come back to school as the guidance states learning mechanisms must still be in place to accommodate distance-learners who aren’t ready to go back yet.
With the bus spacing as of March 18, there were 10 to 11 empty seats, which can accommodate about 10 students (15 if some are siblings).
Other problems to consider is buses have to be sanitized after every drop-off (whether to school or at then end of the day). And school start times would have to be considered so buses aren’t running at the same time. Furthermore, if grouping classes, high school kids are not allowed with elementary students on buses.
The district has 15 full-time bus drivers and four substitutes, however many of the substitutes are older and “don’t want to drive anymore,” due to COVID.
Staff seeks courtesy, consideration of plans at next meeting
Melissa Judson, assistant vice principal at the high school asked board members how the next meeting would be facilitated. She said meetings are typically “very respectful” at the high school, adding that it was “discerning that teachers were interrupted” during the March 18 meeting.
“They will be coming off a very well deserved spring break,” Judson said, adding that she was concerned by the response of a board member adding that it may cause the public “to treat staff in a way that is underserving.”
The staff who spend time preparing for the meeting “deserve the respect of not being interrupted and their had work this entire year.”
Additionally, Ontario High School Principal Jodi Elizondo told board members that if they were unwilling to consider the plans presented, they would need the board to come in and help try to figure out an alternate way of doing things.
“We’re trying to explain to you how difficult it is to get kids across the finish line with their credits,” she said, adding that the students are asking them to keep things this way.
Making huge changes in the last five weeks of school will be “killing seniors in particular,” Elizondo said, which “doesn’t make any since.”
Aside from transportation and other obstacles, there is also the issue of students unwilling to come back to class.
Currently less than half — 320 out of 720 — of the students have permanently come back to school. This was after individual phone calls were made by every teacher to every parent of students in first-period classes. Those teachers called and called, hoping to finally try to reach someone.
After Draper had to leave the meeting, Elizondo asked Corn what kind of timeline it would look like to get something planned if the board was not willing to support the plan of high school staff.
Corn said she wasn’t sure, but hope that the board would have time to review the presentation before the next meeting.
Administrators asked Corn to read a statement about courtesy before the next meeting, and it was noted by board member Blanca Rodriguez that perhaps they could mute a person if they were disruptive.
Corn said she didn’t believe they could legally do that, and would only commit to reading a statement.
To this, Elizondo urged that board members speak up if one of their own was interrupting and tell that person to stop.
“I get it, it’s not comfortable, but we’re not in the position to ask [that],” she said. “But I would appreciate it in protection of our staff members.”