‘The first day of school all over again’

Siuslaw middle, high school begin on-campus hybrid learning

March 13, 2021 — On March 8, 100 students at both Siuslaw middle and high school stepped into their buildings for their first day back in hybrid learning. Moving forward, for half the week they will be on campus, with the other half spent in comprehensive distance learning (CDL).

“It's been good,” said Siuslaw School District Superintendent Andy Grzeskowiak. “The kids seem to enjoy it and the teachers enjoy it. It's kind of the first day of school all over again, having kids back in.”

The district split students into two cohorts for the new hybrid model. Students who were on campus Monday and Tuesday morning are Cohort A, and attended both Monday and Tuesday, followed by CDL the rest of the week. Cohort B attended Wednesday and Thursday, with the rest of the week in CDL.

According to Siuslaw School Board Student Liaison Elijah Blankenship, “Personally, the hybrid stuff has been really nice. I really enjoyed being in school the last couple of days, even though all the curriculum is pretty much the same stuff. It's just a lot nicer to be in school and seeing people.”

To prepare to bring students back for longer days — a transition from the limited in-person instruction the district had operated in since December — school staff has been hard at work.

Grzeskowiak detailed the complicated transportation plans, classroom reorganization and even changing the hallways to be one way only.

“It's been a big dance for us,” he said.

In addition, the district’s custodial and maintenance staff have been working on projects such as replacing drinking fountains with water bottle filling stations, increasing filtration on HVAC units and rearranging all the necessary classrooms and student spaces.

“They're running things well within the buildings, and getting kids to and from,” Grzeskowiak said about each of the facilities.

Siuslaw Elementary started hybrid learning on Feb. 22.

“The kids are really good about masks and distances and stuff,” Grzeskowiak added. “The funny thing is, the only thing that's changed has been the volume of it. Because they're six feet apart, the kids just need to be a little louder. Plus, they're kids and they haven't seen a lot of each other for the last year.”

Friday marked the one-year anniversary of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order to close Oregon schools. Many districts headed into a longer spring break before transitioning into CDL.

For Grzeskowiak, March 12, 2020, was “when the world changed for us for the last 365 days.”

He talked about the immediate aftereffects of the order and the many efforts the district has undertaken to keep students learning and well-adjusted during a global pandemic. These have all culminated in districts across the state switching to hybrid or full on-campus instruction by this spring.

As Brown said in a statement, “One year later, thanks to the hard work and smart choices of Oregonians to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, I am so pleased to see over 174,000 students back in the learning environment that serves them best: in-person instruction.”

Now, Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority are working on the latest installation of “Ready Schools, Safe Learners,” the guideline for school districts’ reopening.

Grzeskowiak said the update likely will include new rules for transportation. Any suggested changes will go in effect a couple weeks after spring break, at the start of the fourth quarter. The district will be in touch with families as soon as more information becomes available.

“It's been worthwhile getting kids back in the building and seeing things get back to some level of normal,” Grzeskowiak said. “Now that people have had kids in the classroom, and even though it's been just a couple of days, I think people feel better.”

The community has noticed as well, especially as the district’s school buses are back on the streets and transporting kids to and from school.

During the March 10 Siuslaw School Board meeting, the district’s administrators gave notes on their expectations for the new hybrid model.

According to Siuslaw High School Principal Garth Gerot and Vice Principal Dave Goetz, “Staff and students are both extremely excited to start in-person learning again after almost a year of being off campus.”

In their report, Siuslaw Middle School Principal Andy Marohl and Vice Principal Nathan Green wrote, “The staff is very excited to welcome students back to in-person instruction. … This is the first step to what we hope is a return to more time for students at school.”

Special Services Director Lisa Utz said the Life Skills and Resource programs are currently serving students in both CDL and hybrid learning.

At several weeks in, Siuslaw Elementary “students and staff alike have adjusted well to new routines in hybrid learning,” stated Principal Mike Harklerode and Vice Principal Leonard Ulrich.

On Friday, Grzeskowiak said he was able to walk the halls of the campus, where he got to see people interacting and sharing smiles. While not a full return of all students or a full school day, it was important to get the students back to in-person instruction.

“It’s that natural social growth and development that happens in schools, which is just as important, or more important, than just the academic piece,” he said. “It's been fun watching some of that and just making sure that they're up and running and having the opportunity to be students, and not just learners on the other side of the screen.”

For more information, visit siuslaw.k12.or.us.