June 24, 2020 — During last week’s Siuslaw School District board meeting, administrators and board members discussed a range of possibilities regarding reopening Siuslaw schools and giving insight into what schedules and school life could look like when classes begin in the fall.
The discussion came days after the Oregon Department of Education (ODE), Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and other state agencies released requirements for reopening. Rules include six feet of physical distance between students at all times, daily health screenings and putting students into small cohorts to help prevent the spread of the disease.
Schools are given three options to reopening: onsite, with all students back; hybrid, with some time on campus and some time offsite; and complete distance learning.
“Full opening is our preferable option, but with the way the current health regulations sit, this is probably unlikely,” said District Superintendent Andrew Grzeskowiak. “It would require more space than we have.”
He stated that full distance learning was not preferable, as it was not an effective way to educate. Instead, the district is looking at the hybrid model.
“We have some students in A and B groups attending every other day with some students in distance learning only,” Grzeskowiak said. “The As and the Bs will be separated by neighborhood and bus route, giving us more space and in essence splitting the district in half, with north and south.”
But even within the hybrid model, there are multiple possibilities on how schools could open.
During last week’s meeting, the board heard possible strategies from all three Siuslaw principals.
At the beginning of the meeting, Grzeskowiak stressed that all plans are subject to change.
“Even since the writing of my report, there’s been a couple of things that have changed,” he said.
The district’s finalized plans will not be due until August. In the meantime, the district is looking for input from families and the community on what reopening should look like, and ideas on how to achieve it. To participate in Siuslaw School District’s reopening survey, follow the link at www.siuslaw.k12.or.us/article/260914.
Siuslaw Elementary School
Elementary Principal Michael Harklerode began his presentation by showing how many students would be in a class under normal circumstances. On average, class sizes range anywhere from 23 to 26 students.
“These numbers are based on enrollment before we went into closure,” he said. “We do anticipate some students will not be returning. And we anticipate that some staff will not be returning.”
However, keeping social distancing requirements would be nearly impossible with those numbers. Instead, he presented three options for a hybrid opening.
First, Harklerode talked about an A/B/A/B alignment Monday through Thursday, with a full prep day on Friday. This would cut class size in half.
“That’s pretty manageable, but we did space out some classrooms today, and it’s pretty tight,” Harklerode said. “There’s not much room for anything else in the classroom aside from students and their desks.”
Normal classroom equipment such as reading nooks and art areas would have to be removed.
“In this model, kids are coming two days a week for sure. It’s predictable and regular,” Harklerode said. “I do have some pretty small class sizes and we might be able to get some classes into the cafeteria for lunches, but that’s looking more and more doubtful as we hear more restrictions.”
The biggest challenge to the model is that teachers will have to double up on their work, prepping for both distance learning and face-to-face instruction.
“They would have kids on campus twice a week, and the other three days would be some sort of distance learning, be it packet or online,” Harklerode said.
A second reopening option would have fourth and fifth graders staying in the A/B model but having first- through third-graders coming in four days a week — with the fifth day off.
“I do have enough classrooms to divide the first grades into smaller groups, and I have the staff to do that. I don’t have the staff for fifth and sixth grade,” Harklerode said.
To get the staff for first, second and third grades, Harklerode would train specialist teachers who usually don’t have homerooms — such as music teachers — to take on the duties of a homeroom teacher.
“I think this works better for working families,” Harklerode said. “The biggest con is that there is virtually no PE, music or library in this model. It’s going to be difficult for families with kids split between high school and the elementary. It’s going to be expensive to set up new teachers for classrooms. That’s a new computer, a new curriculum. It’s going to be quite a cost. This is also a very long day for kids and teachers without any break.”
Recess will also be a challenge, as the district will still have up to 450 students on the elementary campus at any given time. Between separating the student cohorts and the required clearing, organizing around physical distancing regulations will be difficult.
“It won’t be a problem once the kids get to the classrooms,” Harklerode said. “It’s going to be a problem serving lunch, transitioning and entering. The flow of the day is going to be tricky. But it is an option that has more kids coming more frequently.”
The final hybrid model Harklerode presented would be an A/B model for all students — all grades would come in two days a week. But the model would also train specialist teachers to be homeroom teachers, which would cut class sizes down to eight.
“This is far and away the most manageable schedule,” Harklerode said. “This would be a whole lot simpler. There would still be 300 students a day, but they’d be spaced out considerably.”
However, this model would stretch resources thin, creating more work for teachers as well as having additional costs.
Beside the three models, Harklerode also listed a number of other considerations the elementary school will be dealing with.
“Some of our students with allergy concerns, we’re going to have to be conscious about where they are placed, since lunches will be in the classroom,” he said. “We are worried about facility overuse, especially with the bathrooms when worrying about transitions throughout the school.”
Recess will be difficult, but the school is looking at ways to bring music and art to students, no matter what model is chosen.
“I’ve been reading articles on mental health issues related to this whole thing, and stress,” said school board member Suzanne Mann-Heintz. “Musical and physical activity are so important to reduce stress and have an emotional outlet for kids. I hope it can be worked out, though I know it will be very difficult.”
Whatever model they do end up choosing, Harklerode stated that the school will work diligently to inform parents and set expectations, with the first few days of school being devoted to orientation.
“We can have parents and students come to the school in small scheduled groups, so we can walk through log-in identities, passwords, how to navigate the systems we’re using and what they can expect from us,” he said. “We did not have that luxury when we went into distance learning the first time. We really want to make sure we’re setting our students up for success, whether it be in a distance model or a hybrid model.”
Siuslaw Middle School
Middle School Principal Andy Marohl began by saying although he would like to see every student on campus, it most likely won’t occur. Instead, he stated that a hybrid model was more likely.
The schedule he is currently looking at will split the school into A and B groups. Students with last names starting with A-J would be in the A category, and they would attend school Monday and Thursday.
B students would be last names of K-Z, and would go to school on Tuesday and Friday.
Wednesday would be dedicated to staff meetings, some grade level meetings, and instructional assistant hours for students. Teachers would also be able to prepare distance learning lessons and upload portable drives.
“You get contact with students at least a couple of days,” Marohl said. “You can give core instruction on Monday, they have independent practice on Tuesday, they have distance learning on Wednesday, and then they’re back in for new instruction on Thursday. I feel that is appealing and lends itself to less stress.”
One of the biggest challenges for Marohl is not mixing cohorts of students.
“Middle school education has some unique challenges,” he said. “In a typical year, every kid is assigned a schedule and almost every kid’s schedule is different. There are very few kids that would go from class period to class period exactly the same throughout the day. There are 380 unique schedules, which isn’t going to be conducive to keeping a cohort together.”
Instead, electives will be on a wheel rotation, which will force some students to take electives that they normally wouldn’t take.
“It does expose kids to a lot more. Maybe they’ll take some courses they might not take. A kid who goes into band as a sixth grader, if they’re really into their instrument, they would have gone through middle school without taking woodshop, drama or computer science. This definitely exposes students to a lot of different areas.”
There are multiple other challenges with the regulations, particularly transitions between classes. After the bell rings and a class period is over, students usually have a few minutes to visit their locker, talk to friends, etc. After five minutes, the students are ready to take their next class.
But with the new regulations, cohorts of kids can’t mix in the halls. They have to have at least six feet of distance between one another. So Marohl has to implement multiple transition periods throughout the day.
“That would be completely disruptive to the school. Having six different bells between each period would be difficult,” he said.
It will also create challenges for teachers, who will be required to clean classrooms between cohort classes.
“With three minutes, there’s no possible way for teachers to clean every classroom and desk, while monitoring students who are coming and going and monitoring the hallways,” Marohl said. “I’m anticipating we’re going to have to get creative with how instruction is delivered, even within the building.”
There’s also the issue of middle schoolers themselves.
“They are very physical and they like to rebel,” Marohl said with a laugh. “It will be a real challenge to continue to physical distance. I’ve seen some instances throughout the community with social gatherings and there was very little physical distancing occurring, the kids and adults.”
Marohl also listed challenges with the classes themselves, including how music or woodshop could be done while maintaining physical distance.
The principal stated that the process of figuring out solutions was overwhelming. He has already gone through five iterations of student scheduling, and is still creating more.
“Creating one master schedule is challenging, and I’m now on number six,” Marohl said.
But he was optimistic.
“We’re going to figure it out, but we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” he said. “I’ve got a great team and they will rise to the occasion.”
Siuslaw High School
Interim High School Principal Garth Gerot also believed that in-class instruction was desirable, but not possible. He did provide an overview of distance learning only options, which he described as the “safest” mode.
According to Gerot, this way would be adaptable for the future, takes into account any possible outbreaks that could close the school for extended periods, and would be consistent.
But he also called it the least favorable as it does not provide the best instructional model for students, as well as creating the greatest burden on families and staff.
Gerot stated that he will be looking at the hybrid model, which mirrors the middle school model in scheduling.
“A lot of the things are the same. A-J, K-Z works pretty well numbers wise, it almost splits perfectly,” Gerot said.
Core class sizes under this model would range from 9-17.
Like Marohl, Gerot is also having difficulties with classroom transitions from period to period.
“I’ve been spending some time looking at the directionality of the high school, and there’s a lot that can be done to keep kids apart,” he said. “But trying to deal with the bathrooms and some of those common areas, keeping kids apart is going to be difficult.”
Lunches will be tricky. The school will have to split the fourth period to accommodate them, but that still means there’s 100 students taking lunch. The building may have to utilize the gym or lecture hall to accommodate the remaining students.
“The other question that will come up is that we can’t necessarily control a kid when they go off campus, and we currently have open campus for lunch,” Grzeskowiak said. “That might end up being a decision families make about keeping kids on campus during lunch.”
The superintendent stated that the district is still working through “quite a few” logistics for the high school.
For example, what should be done about students in cohorts at different levels of prerequisites? One student is in algebra, but the other in geometry?
“They start making course level splits as soon as the ninth grade,” Grzeskowiak said. “We’re trying to pair up some natural courses by having a math period adjacent to a science period and teachers shifting.”
The high school schedule will take the most work to stay within OHA/ODE guidelines.
There are many other considerations going into opening, from organizing transports to the effects the regulations will have on special education. Childcare will also be extremely important in a hybrid model, as more adults go back to work.
“There will be a childcare crunch in town,” Harklerode said. “If we are on an A/B schedule, there are three days a week when students aren’t coming to school. It’s going to be a challenge for families, and not one I foresee we will be able to remedy.”
As far as when this will be decided, Grzeskowiak stated ODE will continue to update guidance throughout the summer.
“Plus, we’re starting to see an uptick in first wave infections right now, and so OHA may come in and mediate,” Grzeskowiak said. “We need to make a decision and have a plan submitted by Aug. 15. Right now, we have every option out on the table, and as we get a little closer to August, then we’ll put out a probable plan.”
The full list of state requirements for districts can be found at www.oregon.gov/ode/students-and-family/healthsafety/Documents/Ready%20Schools%20Safe%20Learners%202020-21%20Guidance.pdf.
Editor’s Note: Siuslaw News covered Mapleton School District’s preliminary plans in the Saturday, June 20, edition.