Siuslaw School District navigates a new year

District takes a look back as it heads into 2021

Jan. 9, 2021 — “It's been an eye-opening way to look at teaching and learning,” said Siuslaw Superintendent Andy Grzeskowiak, referring to the past year.

The abrupt shift from in-person instruction in schools to comprehensive distance learning. Teachers learning online methods right before opening up virtual classrooms. The struggle to make sure an entire district could connect to quality internet. The worry about kids not having enough to eat. Wondering when students could come back to school, and what that might look like.

“Distance learning is a stressor for everybody because it's not what people are used to,” Grzeskowiak said. “We've had to kind of rewrite the playbook, so to speak.”

Siuslaw has done distance learning since April.

“Last spring was a fast, dry run. But people are making strides with it now,” Grzeskowiak said. “The teachers are doing phenomenally well. This has been a huge shift for them. … A lot of it is retuning and retooling how you approach teaching and learning. With a loss of interaction, you have to really look at how you're presenting the material so that it can be accessed virtually.”

Classes gather online in the morning and separate in the afternoon for additional worktime. Since it’s all distance learning, it’s all “homework,” though some is self-led, with students clicking through links for assignments, and some with the instructor or other students.

“Teachers have come up with some pretty inventive ways of being able to engage in small groups in a digital platform,” Grzeskowiak.

That includes facilitating break-out groups from the main virtual classroom.

Grzeskowiak said a lot of this is possible through the district’s classified staff, an important resource.

“They have been able to take small groups aside in the breakout rooms of the digital platforms and work with kids in groups. So you get a bit of a rotation of kids coming from main instruction group to breakout group, to main structure group to breakout group, over and over again,” he said. “Kids are getting some of the more intense small group interaction that they could get in a classroom. We’ve just had to just find a way to manage it in this environment.”

There is a benefit to the virtual classrooms — teachers are able to structure their platform to show every assignment and due date. This helps for students who miss a class or need to catch up.

“All that material is set in reserve and ready to go,” Grzeskowiak said. “It's not a special trip or an extra effort for a teacher or student to get caught up. It's going to be there, regardless of whether the class was a live class or not.”

It’s one aspect of distance learning the district wasn’t anticipating, but middle school and high school instructors are hoping to continue to offer the resource when in-person instruction returns.

For Grzeskowiak, it’s not just about efficiency but about equity.

Equity also calls to mind the struggles of using traditional grading methods while in distance learning.

“We're working on a plan to give kids time to complete the work and demonstrate knowledge beyond what's in the normal classroom,” Grzeskowiak said. “So, more of a competency-based learning as opposed to the standard traditional grading.”

Since not all students have the same level of access — to the internet, parent help, and other means of support — the district is working on an updated grading system that demonstrates student knowledge and problem-solving skills.

“Kids have shown competency and could and should get credit for that course. And that’s what a lot of staff are working on, is how do you give that kind of equivalency to an alternate piece that fits the student's learning scheme?” Grzeskowiak said. “The idea that everything in school needs to be ‘one and done’ doesn't match what we do with adults and professionals in the community. Trying to resolve that is a lot of what we're doing. If a kid can demonstrate the knowledge and competency in the class, that's the more important piece and they would deserve credit for that.”

It’s something the district is going to continue to work on.

In the meantime, Siuslaw is also addressing other issues that are components of equity.

“The school board had a real concern with making sure that basic needs of students were met,” Grzeskowiak said. “Between the transportation group and the Food Services Group, they have done a tremendous job of making sure that kids get meals.”

Siuslaw School District has 60 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. That has extended into the Community Eligibility Provision, where all students in school can get free breakfast and lunch.

“It's difficult to do that when they're not on campus. And with a district as far ranging as ours — we've got some kids that ride the bus 45 minutes to an hour from the outer reaches — we can't really have kids come to school to do meal pickup,” Grzeskowiak said. “So we’re going out every day and hitting 23 meal stops. We're making sure that kids who need meals are getting breakfast and lunch, and they're getting a weekend supply.”

Beyond that, community partnerships have come into play.

The Thursday Evening Dinner Partnership Program delivers meals on Thursdays afternoons. It’s a partnership with Florence Food Share and Siuslaw Food Service Supervisor Dave Bitner, who prepares the meals with Siuslaw kitchen staff. Then, school counselors, staff and Grzeskowiak take more than 80 four-person meals to 56 different home sites.

For the superintendent, it allows them to interact with students and their families. His route allows him to see students from elementary to high school grades.

Florence Food Share provides the ingredients, which Bitner and his staff craft into tasty and nutritious meals. More than 8,000 meals have been delivered since May, with an average single meal cost of $1.81 per serving.

“And that's a mix of students’ families, other food share clients and some people that we've just found out in the community where we've been doing material deliveries and food deliveries,” Grzeskowiak said.

Florence Food Share has committed $20,000 to the Thursday dinners, with plans in place to continue to support the program.

Besides providing for the material needs of the community, “it's also a good way to get in and check on kids and families, make sure everybody's doing OK and just say, ‘hi,’” Grzeskowiak said.

The district also provides school materials to students. At the elementary level, families pick up packets every other week, or school staff will drop them off. Middle and high school students also have materials to pick up every so often.

“We're making sure that kids are getting what they need to get through distance learning,” Grzeskowiak said.

Dropping off materials has allowed school staff to check in on families. “Checking in” has also helped the district bring quality internet to the far reaches of the district.

Siuslaw School Board approved the Internet Subsidy Assistance Program in August. Under the program, Grzeskowiak and Business Manager Kari Blake coordinate the delivery of WIFI hotspots to families. In some cases, this has been a temporary bridge until a home can be connected to regular home internet service. For others, this will be their method of connection for the foreseeable future.

“We've got to make sure that kids do have some sort of device,” Grzeskowiak said. “Step one is sometimes just going out and standing in the driveway with the signal meter and seeing whether or not they have access to a signal. And then working from there.”

Sometimes the district can connect people to internet providers and help with language barriers.

“The district has stepped in to advocate where possible,” Grzeskowiak said. “We're doing a lot of extra stuff to smooth that runway for people.”

The district also provides Chromebook laptops to all students.

“We can't teach kids unless basic needs are met. Nowadays, a big part of that is internet. Internet is no longer a luxury item. In essence, it's a public utility. It should be treated like water and power. But until that becomes more of a national concern, we’ve been out here with the board, putting their stamp on policy to subsidize families or provide them with hotspots in areas where maybe they can't get a regular connection. If we're going to do distance learning, kids have to be able to connect from distance. It's that simple,” Grzeskowiak said.

In a normal classroom setting, it is easier to make sure every student has access to instructors, support, meals, workspace and socialization.

“It would be easier to address student needs if everybody was on campus six hours a day,” Grzeskowiak said. “So we come back to equity. That's been part of the push with getting internet out to students, but also bringing kids back in for limited in-person instruction (LIPI). As much as we have tried to push internet access out, there are still gaps in the system. And not everybody can get on at the same time.”

LIPI allows small groups of students to come onto campus for class time. They remain in isolated cohorts, wear facemasks, follow distancing guidelines — but they get to be at school again.

“It's fun, and it's been a success, because kids have been here,” Grzeskowiak said. “Even though it's for two hours, they're happy with it. They're getting to see other students, they're getting to see staff, they're interacting, even at physical distance. It is a bit of more of a human connection than just seeing somebody in a one-by-two cube on your screen.”

The school district brought the first round LIPI students in November, with 40 kids attending at Siuslaw Elementary and smaller amounts at the middle and high schools. It served as a bit of a “dry run” for managing the number of people and interactions on campus. It also showed how the bus transportation plan would work for those who come in for their two-hour shifts.

“Our direction has always been building towards getting kids back to campus, as it's been safe,” Grzeskowiak said. “It's a matter of matching that health and safety threshold in the community to bring people onto campus with responsible practices. Once you line those two up, then you get back to a more normal on-campus learning environment.”

The superintendent emphasized that primary instruction will still be distance learning, with LIPI as a voluntary supplement.

“Staff have gone through each building and identified kids that have academic needs or social needs. We've got parents that have also called and emailed in and said, ‘My kid is struggling with X, Y or Z.’ We've included them in that first group to bring them in,” he said.

He added that the first round was successful, so LIPI is expanding in January.

“The on-campus experience has been positive for both staff and students. While the program started small, the word of mouth about LIPI have driven the requests for more participation,” Grzeskowiak said.

This is building the base for more normalized on-campus learning rotations in the second semester. More students will be able to come in, remaining in clearly defined cohorts.

Adding LIPI has required a balance for teachers and staff. Many will teach classes virtually in the first part of the day and interact with students on campus in the afternoon, during the applied learning time portion of the school day.

Throughout it all, safety has been emphasized at every step.

“From what's recently released from OHA (Oregon Health Authority), we know that schools are doing a good job with on-campus interactions,” Grzeskowiak said. “We're not seeing transmission between students and staff or staff and students.”

The superintendent monitors cases of COVID-19 locally, at the county level and throughout the state. Those numbers will determine when schools will eventually be able to open for additional in-person instruction.

However, Oregon’s metrics are expected to change this January after Gov. Kate Brown made an announcement on Dec. 23 that schools could potentially open as early as Feb. 15.

“While the announcement was that the health metrics were becoming ‘advisory’ rather than requirements, so far no other significant changes in operational guidance have been released,” Grzeskowiak said, stating that Siuslaw would continue to follow Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance.

Oregon Department of Education (ODE) and OHA created this program to focus on health and safety requirements for school districts and provides guidelines for operating schools under COVID-19. It also acts as an operational blueprint for transitioning between comprehensive distance learning, LIPI, a hybrid model between the two and eventual entire on-campus instruction.

“As far as the governor’s announcement, Siuslaw will be on the same track as Mapleton and most of the rest of the county,” Grzeskowiak said.

This includes the expansion of LIPI, which is the foundation for the eventual transition to a more normal, hybrid, on-campus learning environment.

ODE and OHA will provide updates to Ready Schools, Safe Learners on Jan. 19.

“Without changes in cohort sizes, cohort attendance counts, transportation rules or physical distancing and spacing requirements, there is little impact on how schools could operate,” Grzeskowiak said.

The district has made several plans that outline what the rest of 2021 will look like depending on Jan. 19’s update. This includes referencing current guidelines as well as learning from other states and countries where schools have reopened safely.

For Siuslaw, Grzeskowiak said space limitations are going to be the main holdup to quicker reopening. Each person on campus needs 35 square feet, which can prevent adding too many more people into the LIPI mix.

“It’s really one of the key elements to keeping staff and students safe on campus, and that's not going to go away,” he said.

In the meantime, the Florence area has continued to see a rise in local cases of COVID-19. Those are primarily in the older population, and local school districts are doing all they can to sanitize and keep distance.

“In-person learning is doing a lot for kids and parents being comfortable with coming to campus,” Grzeskowiak said. “It's also helping staff build those connections back with kids. It's been a positive all around.”

The first semester of the 2020-21 school year ends in February, which will allow for a chance to really look at what the rest of the year might look like.

“I think the students and staff have taken 2020 in as much stride as they could and persevered in this,” Grzeskowiak said. “It's a matter of people wanting to get back to normal. But to get back to normal, we've got to make sure that we're taking care of each other today. There are some real simple things that we need to do for protecting the public health that is going to make getting back to school, getting back to business, getting back to church a reality for everybody. If we're following those public health guidelines, those normal life activities will start up again.”