Not day-to-day, but week-to-week, comes the timeline on a decision for when elementary kids in Hood River County School District might return to in-person learning.

Due to county health data, Hood River County did not meet the COVID-19 health metrics for the week of Oct. 18 to reopen schools for kindergarten through third grade (K-3) students in early November. That pushes the potential reopening date farther back; the district is now looking at a date later in the month.

District officials announced Friday that Nov. 23 is possible but Nov. 30 is more likely due to the Thanksgiving holiday, according to District Communications Director Stephanie Hoppe. Given the county’s health data, Hood River County School District (HRCSD) must postpone its date to reopen schools for in-person instruction for K-3 students.

HRCSD announced Monday it is reviewing the new metrics and determining plans to reopen schools for in-person instruction. HRCSD will share more information on Nov. 3 (too late for print; see columbiagorgnews.com) after the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) provides its weekly COVID-19 report. 

Hoppe said HRCSD continues to closely monitor COVID-19 data with state and county partners and are “partnering to develop health procedures to safely reopen schools.”

Oregon Department of Education (ODE) and OHA set health metrics, which are outlined in Ready Schools, Safe Learners, that must be met for a school district to reopen its schools. During the week of Oct. 18, Hood River County reported 35.3 cases per 100,000, which exceeds the COVID-19 health metric of 30 cases per 100,000 and delays HRCSD’s plans for reopening its schools.

The earliest possible return to in-person instruction for K-3 students is Monday, Nov. 23. However, due to the Thanksgiving holiday, the return date to in-person instruction may be extended to Monday, Nov. 30. 

Students in grades 4-12 will remain in Comprehensive Distance Learning (CDL) until Feb. 2, 2021, which coincides with the end of the first semester for middle school and high school students.

For more information about Hood River County School District, visit www.hoodriver.k12.or.us.

Columbia Gorge News reported in the Oct. 28 edition that board had beens scheduled to discuss the state-required blueprint for returning to in-person learning during its Oct. 28 work session, where technically no action items are on the agenda. 

The announcement about setting back the reopening date was done in response to the newly-announced metrics, according to Hoppe. She said, “Oregon Health Authority (OHA) releases official state and county health data on Tuesday each week. Since HRCSD and all other school districts in Oregon have to meet Oregon Department of Education (ODE) and OHA health metrics in order to reopen, HRCSD looks closely at the data each Tuesday to determine reopening options. We were on track as of last Tuesday’s data report from OHA. Last week’s report showed that Hood River County fell out of the metrics to reopen for K-3 students.” 

Hoppe explained, “We sent out an update to families Monday (Oct. 26) evening with this new information regarding data and plans (if we meet the metrics for the next three weeks, the earliest we could open is Nov. 23 but with Thanksgiving that week, the likely first in-person date would be Nov. 30).

“We will continue to provide weekly updates to families on Tuesdays (as soon as we learn about the county’s health data), basically performing a rolling watch of the county health data and aiming to reopen schools as soon as we can for our K-3 students.”

The board heard Oct. 28 from three district elementary teachers who argued it is unfair to expect teachers to enforce coronavirus protocols and provide high-quality instruction, and suggested distance learning remains the better alternative for now.

“I am not confident in the school district’s ability to open safely, or to avoid getting infected,” Parkdale PE teacher Brock Hassell told the board. 

“I am being asked to my job without regard for doing it safely,” said Parkdale reading specialist Marika Smith. “As a teacher, I want nothing more than to be in the classroom, but I am willing to wait until we have a clear plan,” Smith said. “There many unanswered questions,” pertaining to students moving to and from music and PE, restroom breaks, transportation, general ingress and egress, and other in-school logistics.

“I am not confident in sanitation, or mask enforcement, or that we will be able to ask students to stay in their designated 36-foot spaces,” said Hassell, a Parkdale resident and parent of two elementary-aged children. “I am also not confident that eating in class is safe,” he said. The district plans to keep students in their classroom at mealtimes.

Fifth-grade teacher Inga Herneisen from May Street Elementary said, “I wholeheartedly believe kids learn better in classroom under guidance and supervision of a teacher. I want to be in the classroom, but the efforts to return are based on the premise that onsite is better. Given the requirements of health and safety, I am not sure this will be true.” She said it is unrealistic to expect elementary kids to “stay in their bubbles” from 7:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. with one 15-minute break. 

Comprehensive Distance Learning (CDL), now in place, is more conducive to this, Herneisen argued, “These are 6-year-olds, their bodies need to move, they need brain breaks, and currently we are allowing them to be kids without disrupting others,” she said.

In a general report on CDL at Parkdale Elementary, Principal Gus Hedberg said an online PE element of CDL instruction is supported via an extended grant from the Playworks fitness program the school has contracted with for the last three years. Playworks staff are working with staff on what recess will look like in a return to in-person instruction.

Hedberg acknowledged that in the classroom, “a large number of students are having a hard time being engaged, for a wide variety of reasons.

“A huge concern is keeping cameras on, teachers are not really knowing if the student is engaged,” Hedberg said. “A student might have shut down, left the room, or just moved around the room, but teachers don’t always know.”

Asked by board member Brandi Sheppard how many students are essentially disappearing from teachers’ view, Hedberg said that anecdotal estimates range from 25-50 percent at any given time.

He credited teachers as well as support staff for “a lot of efforts at identifying and supporting students who are not showing up or coming and then leaving,” or families who are not aware of their students’ schedules and how to monitor participation. 

When it comes to instruction, Hedberg said, teachers “have had to be incredibly innovative, trying new things and as a staff we are collaborating well with teachers and with IA staff (Instruction Assistants). 

“People are stepping up where they are needed,” Hedberg said, who added that he has received strong support from the administration in addressing concerns.

He described a pair of obstacles, one technical and one emotional.

Some staff are experiencing “compassion fatigue” from their anxiety over meeting all students needs. 

In addition, families in the Dee Highway area lack computer connectivity needed for students to participate in CDL. Technological and other measures are being taken to provide connectivity to up to 10 families. (One family has been provided space in an employer’s home with a WiFi hotspot, Hedberg reported.)

“It is a real concern; we have one family driving to the school and doing learning from school,” he said. That family parks in the school parking lot for better Internet access and the student is receiving instruction in the car. (For reasons of connectivity to the Internet as well as with fellow staff members, 85 percent of Hedberg’s staff are conducting instruction from the Parkdale School building itself rather than the home option.)

“It’s really hard when you are in a classroom and you know you are not reaching all your students. It is hard for teachers to come to terms with that: How do  you close your door every day and walk away from that?” Hedberg said.

“We try to have grace with each other and smile and think of it as one step in front of another,” he said. Puppetry and juggling lessons — for students and staff alike — have been fun and active outlets, Hedberg reported.

Another virtual event designed to connect the Parkdale community was a Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead, Nov. 1) night with music, crafts and other activities, via a slideshow including video coordinated by Patty Acosta. Families received crafts, bingo boards and other materials in curbside pickup for use at home during the Day of the Dead event.

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