ONTARIO — It is unlikely that students in Ontario School District will be returning to classrooms until at least October, as the Ontario School District Board of Directors approved a change to the start of the 2020-2021 school year, pushing back the opening day to Aug. 31.
During Monday night’s work session before the regularly scheduled board meeting, Superintendent Nicole Albisu walked the School Board through the district’s tentative plan for returning to school.
The School Board did not vote on the district’s fall reopening plan (which is due by Aug. 15), only voting on the change to the starting date (which was previously set for Aug. 21).
The district’s plan, as of Monday night, is to move the first day of instruction to Aug. 31, followed by a week of online orientation with the fall term opening with comprehensive distance learning starting on Sept. 8. Albisu said the plan is to use a distance learning model until Oct. 1, when the district would open in a hybrid format.
“How can we bring as many students back as possible?” Albisu posed. She said it might be best to have as many students in eighth grade and younger be in the classroom as much as possible, while incorporating a more hybrid approach with the high school.
Schools nationwide have been closed since mid-March as a preventative measure to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19. In the weeks after spring break, schools started distance learning for the spring 2020 term.
And for the upcoming school year, the administrators of Ontario School District are hoping that distance learning will be a bit better than it was in the spring.
Calling the spring classes a “crisis response” that was designed for a limited duration, Ontario School District Director of Student Services Melissa Williams said future distance learning for the district would include:
• Synchronistic learning for all, including live classes.
• It must ensure student engagement.
• It must ensure social and emotional learning needs are met.
With board member Derrick Draper raising the concern that students might prefer to switch to a full online model with an online charter school, Williams said that is a concern of every school in Oregon. She said that the connection with teachers would be the difference for the public schools when it comes to retaining students.
Ontario School District has a survey live on its website, and as of Monday night had 627 respondents. Ontario School District Public Relations and Communications Coordinator Taryn Smith said the responses the district has received have changed over the weeks as positive cases of the virus have gone up significantly in the month of July and parents are becoming more concerned.
As of Monday, Smith said the survey showed that 38% of respondents want to return to in-person classes. Then 33% of respondents said they are for a hybrid model and 21% said they want a return to distance learning.
Smith also asked how comfortable parents are with sending their children back to school. The survey shows that 58% of respondents are comfortable with it while 42% responded that they are uncomfortable.
A bigger picture
To give the School Board a better sense of what’s going on in Malheur County, Malheur County Health Department Director Sarah Poe was in attendance to look over the numbers.
As other districts are, Albisu said she has been in contact with Poe a lot over the past months to discuss reopening the schools, and Poe said she supports the efforts that Ontario School District has put in for the reopening plans.
While positive tests are high in Malheur County, Poe said the silver lining right now is that of the county’s nearly 600 positive cases, only 68 of them are minors. Poe said the spread of COVID-19 among those who would be attending school is low, as of Monday. She also said state health authorities should be prioritizing schools once the school year starts.
“It doesn’t make sense if schools can’t be open, but we have bars, restaurants and salons open,” Poe said.
Poe said she supports Ontario School District’s decision to open school, as it gives Malheur County more time to get in control of its positive case return rate (which is about 25% for the month of July).
“We are buying time for the community to slow the spread,” she said.
Albisu said Ontario School District is going to be able to help more with rolling out distance learning this year. And this also comes with more technology for all students.
Albisu said the district is able to provide a Chromebook for every student and the district is also working on getting Internet hotspots for families who don’t have access at home.
Albisu said the additional access will be helpful for all students, but the district knows that COVID-19 disproportionately affects the district’s most vulnerable students (English Language Learners, students with disabilities, homeless) and having access to the Internet is a major deal for all students when it comes to distance learning.
One item that brought discussion to Monday’s meeting was busing.
In discussing a hybrid return to school, Ontario School District Federal Programs Director Anabel Ortiz-Chavolla said that all buses will have an instructional assistant who will be tasked with screening students for symptoms and asking them if they might have come in contact with someone who has COVID-19.
Board member Eric Evans, who is the Malheur County planning director and also on the county’s COVID-19 Task Force, said contact tracing on buses could be tough because people will have to make decisions if certain students are considered “in contact with” another student even though they sat on opposite ends of the bus.
Poe said that students on buses will have to be considered a cohort, since they do come in contact.
“Isolating those risks to avoid outbreaks is the point of the cohorts in the first place,” Poe said.
• With Mike Blackaby resigning following an executive session meeting on July 20, Ontario School District has begun accepting letters of interest for the vacant seat.
Any applicants for the position must be a registered voter and live within the Ontario School District boundary.
The board decided that they would open the application process through the month of August and are hoping to have that vacant seat voted on during the September meeting.
With Blackaby’s resignation, the Ontario School District Board of Directors no longer has any members who won a race for their current position. Corn, Draper, Evans and Rodriguez all ran unopposed during the last election.
• Also on Monday, the School Board voted on new leadership. Renae Corn was unanimously voted as the Board Chairwoman while Evans was unanimously voted the Vice Chairman.