Aug. 1, 2020 — While the Siuslaw School District is currently scheduled to open on Sept. 14, new state opening metrics released Tuesday by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown will mean the majority of students will be attending online only until at least October. The only exception to this could be K-3 students, which may possibly be allowed to attend onsite class in a limited hybrid model as early as September.
“For the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about this being metric driven, but nobody knew what the metrics were,” said District Superintendent Andrew Grzeskowiak. “And so, we’ve been working on a hybrid plan having half the kids onsite every day, and the other half viewing the class virtually at home.”
The metric that Siuslaw was going with was specifically local, working hand-in-hand with Lane County Public Health to monitor outbreaks in or around the district.
But on Tuesday night, Brown changed plans by releasing three additional metrics:
For Siuslaw, the biggest issue is the state metric.
“With the metrics coming out Tuesday night, that scrapped our hybrid plan,” said Grzeskowiak. “Our current county case rate is trending down. It’s under 15, going to 10. The positivity rate is [between 1 and 2]. … But the Oregon positivity rate is too high for any school to open for general onsite operations.”
Right now, the state positivity rate is trending downward, but it’s still brushing against the 5 percent threshold.
On Thursday, Oregon Health Authority (OHA) reported that the rate was 5.1, though it was as high as 7 the week before. It’s also dipped as low at 4.6 percent. But even if the positivity rate declines to 5 percent, it could spike up again, resetting the whole process.
“Where we stand today, we won’t get three weeks of data until Aug. 15,” Grzeskowiak said.
And that is a few days after the date the district was supposed to turn in its reopening plan to Lane County for approval — which included start dates.
“We want to make sure we’re doing good solid chunks of time to continue with one learning mode, regardless of the health metrics, to make sure we’re actually getting education done,” Grzeskowiak said.
Because of that, the district's plan is to now hold the first day of school, Sept. 14, online only.
As for when onsite learning can begin, Grzeskowiak stressed that the school will take a measured approach.
“We don’t want to get into a cycle of in-and-out, in-and-out based on one number,” he said. “That doesn’t help at all. We’re trying to look at blocks in the middle of each academic term.”
This would mean that onsite learning would be delayed until October at the earliest.
“Knowing that we will most likely start with distance learning, we would want to look at the last few weeks of September and the first weeks of October to bring kids back in the middle of the quarter,” Grzeskowiak said. “And if our numbers don’t meet the metric at that time, our next natural break falls at the end of the first quarter.”
Which would mean onsite learning could be delayed until as late as November. If the metrics aren’t met then, it’s possible that the district would not return to in-class instruction until 2021.
“Health officials are looking at a significant drop in rates due to changes in behavioral patterns or the potential of a vaccine,” Grzeskowiak said. “We could make a return to a hybrid or onsite model in February. When metrics shift, we have the ability to move in.”
If there’s one exception to the rule, it could be for students in kindergarten to third grade, which, at the end of the new metrics, the state listed as an exception.
“They could be on campus if COVID-19 is not spreading in the community, if the county case rates are less than 30 for the last three weeks, and county test positivity is 5 percent or less,” Grzeskowiak said.
Current county numbers would allow for this scenario, which would see grades K-3 spread out throughout the entire elementary school. Social distancing would also be easier with the populations of grades four and five at home.
However, the state was vague in this guideline. While it listed specifics for county metrics, it doesn’t mention the county overriding the state metric. Could the state metric play into the K-3 exception?
“We have not found an answer to that,” Grzeskowiak stated. “Our county representatives have been asking for us. Every county in the state is asking the same question, except the ones that have rates so high they can’t even consider it.”
If Siuslaw is allowed to have onsite instruction for K-3, it will still be limited.
“Each individual student would be coming for one day each week,” Siuslaw Elementary Principal Mike Harklerode said during a July 24 town hall. “It will allow for instruction intensity that we would not be able to achieve with larger cohorts.”
During a meeting on Wednesday, Siuslaw School Board encouraged the district to plan for a K-3 reopening in September, if metrics allow. As far as when and how to reopen the rest of the school, the board will discuss the question in greater detail during their next meeting on Aug. 12.
As for next steps, the district is still working on an exact date to have registration, which is currently planned for Aug. 11. That will be crucial for the district to know how many parents will want to attempt hybrid learning, or to focus on distance education instead.
After registration, the district will then hold orientations for students and guardians to learn new technology.
“We’re really going to schedule small groups to come through and do digital orientation,” Grzeskowiak. “We didn’t have that opportunity in the spring.”
This school year, distance education will look far different compared to last, where different programs were stitched together at the last minute when the governor closed schools in March.
“It’s a much more thought out, much more planned-for event,” Harklerode said during last week’s public meeting. “We will have expectations and parameters around it for attendance. It won’t be pass/fail. It will actually be coursework that progresses knowledge. I really want to be clear that we’ve put a lot of time and thought into how distance learning will be different.”
Students will also have options in how they do online work. Students can opt for a more private distance learning model, where they are simply given assignments to finish on their own. But there is another option for more interactive learning. For example, when the hybrid model is instituted, at-home students will be able to watch classes live that are being held onsite, with the ability to interact.
Regarding security, both parents and teachers will be given new tools for distance instruction.
“One of the things that the school district didn’t have last year was a way to significantly monitor what was happening with the Chromebooks that we’re handing out,” said Marty Zdunich, Director of Technology for the district, pointing out that, at current numbers, all students will have their own Chromebooks supplied to them by the district.
New software is being installed that allows teachers to monitor what is happening on the Chromebooks, including what websites students are looking at, and giving teachers the ability to block them if necessary.
“We also have parental controls we’re going to give parents in case they want to add additional areas they don’t want students to go,” Zdunich said. “There’s also reports generated for parents on where their students have been looking and doing. This allows us to actively engage the parents more in what’s going on in the classroom.”
One of the major concerns the district has been dealing with over the summer is connectivity issues for households without internet. But the school has been working on a program that will allow the district to subsidize households unable to connect, either with “a copper line, a fiber line or satellite,” Grzeskowiak said.
The district has also ordered some mobile hotspots, though “they are not ideal because of bandwidth.”
Brown has also released $20 million in funds for districts around the state to help pay for connectivity.
With all these changes, the currently shifting landscape of reopening has been frustrating for parents in the district, unsure as to what the rapidly approaching school year will look like.
“Everyone’s on pins and needles now, waiting to know what school will look like when they return,” said School Board Member Diana Pimlott. “Many are formulating plans and decisions.”
But with so many different factors at play, it’s possible that decisions now could change within weeks.
“We see how rapidly things will change, as we saw just in the last few hours with the governor's announcement,” said newly elected Board Chair Bob Sneddon.
In other news from the meeting, Sneddon was chosen as board chair, while Paul Burns was chosen as vice-chair.
Outgoing chair Guy Rosinbaum thanked both district staff and the board for their work during the outbreak.
“I want to take you all back to where this all started,” he said, referring to the period when the possible ramifications of the pandemic were unknown. “I know I probably sounded like a madman more than once. I really want to thank you guys for not pointing it out. I saw the look in people’s eyes when I talked about what was possibly coming, and I appreciate you guys working so hard and diligently on what seemed like a madman’s plan. It’s not been an easy drive, and it’s not going to be an easy drive going forward — but you made the job a lot easier.”