The South Lane School District (SLSD) Board held a listening session on Monday in which educators and parents presented the board with opinions on the prospect of reopening of the schools.
The district has been eager to return students to in-person learning and is looking at hybrid options as the Oregon education system standards for COVID-19 have shifted to move away from Comprehensive Distance Learning (CDL).
Community members are torn, however, between a desire to return students and teachers to the classroom and maintain safety amid a pandemic.
“Part of my challenge with this is, I’m nearly sure that there isn’t a best answer to the question that we’re asking,” said board member Gary Mort. “We’re looking for the best answer we can get during a pandemic. And the solution space is pretty dismal, frankly.”
Select commentors from the public were given two minutes each to speak on Monday night as around 100 audience members signed in to the virtual meeting.
As teachers and parents shared their opinions with the board, themes emerged on both sides.
For the most part, educators were apprehensive about moving ahead too quickly toward in-person schooling while many parents were eager to see their children back in a classroom environment.
Testimony from both sides made compelling arguments for each point of view.
Parents made various appeals based on the strains on daily life and the decreased quality of education created by the pandemic restrictions and the CDL method.
According to some testimony, homes with multiple kids have been put in the position of older children parenting for their younger siblings while the parents work.
Some parents who work as teachers fell into the camp advocating for a push toward the hybrid model as well.
A teacher who identified as “part of the 30 percent of the staff that would like to get hybrid started” pointed to the limitations of CDL, particularly with students who need close observations to assess progress.
On other hand, while many teachers stated their desire for a return to normalcy in education, they also expressed nervousness about returning to classrooms too hastily.
It was pointed out by a commentor that a majority (70 percent) of certified South Lane Education Association (SLEA) union members ask that they receive both doses of the COVID-19 vaccination before returning to the classroom.
The SLEA executive team also submitted a statement to the board emphasizing this point and supported safety measures such as updated HVAC systems to prevent the spread of the virus through the shared air supply.
Another teacher said she was worried about returning due to having an at-risk parent who needs her support following a death in the family.
“If I returned to school — even with hybrid teaching — before I’m vaccinated, I will become the primary risk to my mother and we won’t be able to be there for each other,” she said.
One participant brought up the risk that children and young adults can be potent vectors for the virus, even if they don’t display symptoms.
“Before we re-open our buildings, we need to make sure that the most vulnerable students, staff and community members have been vaccinated as well as having rigorous safety procedures in place,” they said.
Another argument was made that even the hybrid model involving “pods” of students would not be significantly better than CDL in terms of socializing. And yet, the risk of spreading the virus would still increase.
The trade-off, it was argued, would not be worth it until better safety precautions such as vaccination can be implemented.
Following the listening session, board members convened to discuss issue before them. Members seemed to be in consensus on at least one thing: the decision won’t be easy.
“I’m conflicted as well. But I do feel that we need to work towards getting the little ones at least back into the buildings as much as possible as safely as possible,” said board member Colleen Valley. “Teachers and staff are not disposable. And we need to keep that in mind.”
However, Valley added that timing was an issue.
“I’m concerned that if we wait for a vaccine or a second dose of vaccine in the case of the ones that need that, for everyone to get back to school, we were going to be looking at next fall before that happens,” she said. “And I don’t think that that is acceptable.”
With Oregon Health Authority also announcing Monday that Oregon educators were eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, SLSD is expected to distribute its first round of vaccines tomorrow (Jan. 29).
Doses are sparse, however.
“We do not have enough vaccines for our entire staff,” said Assistant Superintendent Brian McCasline. “We have a little under 100 vaccines coming our way and so we will need to prioritize those vaccines based on the nature of the work that our employees are doing.”
Approximately 470 SLSD staff are eligible for the vaccine, he said.
More doses are expected at a later date, which has yet to be announced, though McCasline said their arrival should be within the time window for those from the first round who need second doses.
“We feel very strongly about getting vaccines in the hands of all of our staff as soon as possible,” he said. “And so that’s why we’re working tirelessly to make that happen.”
The final decisions on the dates and plans for implementing hybrid instruction lies with the superintendent working with her cabinet and school administrators.
“We are going to be very cautious and make sure we can make the information as clear and as accurate as possible,” said Superintendent Yvonne Curtis. “And then we’ll make sure we translate it into Spanish so that our Spanish-speaking families get the information at the same time. So those are the next steps.”
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