The debate over school reopenings for the 2020-21 school year is raging nationally and, despite ongoing work from local officials, the situation in Cottage Grove is just as muddled.
The South Lane School District (SLSD) board met remotely on Monday, July 20 to discuss the most pressing issues facing its member schools as well as elect new officers for the upcoming school year.
With a lack of concrete direction from the Oregon Department of Education – due to the ever-changing situation regarding COVID-19 - superintendent Yvonne Curtis and the seven members of the SLSD board discussed a number of options and ideas, but the difficulty of the school reopening topic, and its far-reaching effects if done unsafely, still elicit more questions than answers.
Nonetheless, the first order of business for the board on Monday was the election of new leadership for 2020-21 and, in stark contrast to the planning for fall, the process was as smooth as could be.
Dustin Bengtson, who was recently elevated to the vice chair position at the end of his first year on the board, was unanimously approved as the new board chair. He takes over for outgoing head Sherry Duerst-Higgins.
“I appreciate the vote of confidence,” Bengtson said after the vote. “I will certainly make mistakes this year, so I ask for your patience. I will do my best to do my part to get us through this challenging time.”
Assisting Bengtson in his role as a new board officer will be both Taylor Wilhour and long-time board member and former chair Sherry Duerst-Higgins, who were also unanimously approved to become co-vice chairs. The shared position was created in order to blend Wilhour’s fresh perspectives as a relatively new member of the board with Duerst-Higgins’ vast experience.
“I’m certainly going to look to Sherry and her depth of experience for pointers and, especially, her vast network of connections within education throughout the state and, to some extent, throughout the country,” Wilhour said.
Bengtson, Wilhour, Duerst-Higgins and the rest of the board, however, had no time to rest as the conversation pivoted immediately to questions surrounding a September restart for SLSD, inching ever closer by the day.
“[Electing co-vice chairs] is a decision we did not anticipate,” Bengtson said after the vote, “but I think it’s a good outcome and it makes me feel a lot less nervous going into next year.”
The decisions regarding school restarts are almost entirely centered around student and faculty safety in the face of an ongoing viral threat: Is it safe to come to school? Should attendees wear masks? What happens if a student, teacher or administrator falls ill? What about parents who don’t feel comfortable sending their children back into the classroom yet? What will distance learning look like?
With scientific understanding regarding the coronavirus evolving on a near-daily basis, none of these questions have clear answers, but the SLSD remains committed to searching for solutions.
“We are hoping that the content planning team that’s been working on the schedule is going to have reached consensus around a schedule,” said Curtis. The district could have more answers over the next week.
It’s a near certainty that students will attend school in cohorts – an A group and a B group – who both attend in-person school two days per week with a Wellness Wednesday in between so SLSD staff can continue their ongoing outreach to students and families. The remaining question is how those two days will be divided up, whether one group attends Mon.-Tue. with the other attending Thurs.-Fri. (AA-BB model), or split days with a group on Mon. and Thurs. and the other on Tues. and Fri (A-B model).
“I’m anticipating that it’s going to be the A-B model with Wellness Wednesday,” Curtis said.
This, however, is largely a plan for middle and high school students where at-home child care on off days and after school is less of an issue. Perhaps even larger questions remain regarding elementary school as the district works with local childcare providers, such as the YMCA, to find a workable, synthesized solution that can serve the whole community.
“We’ve been really concerned about elementary kids being at home by themselves and felt like if we can see them every day, we would prefer that. So, our staff started working on an A.M./P.M. schedule to see if that could work,” Curtis said of a potential plan that would have all elementary students in school five days per week with each day split into a morning cohort and an afternoon cohort. “The problem is, we can’t make it work with transportation.”
Thus, SLSD and other districts across the state and county – who have largely been in consistent contact with one another to compare plans and ideas – are finding that some form of A/B schedule at all levels is the only feasible way forward when considering transportation and staffing.
Recent parent surveys handed out by SLSD staff illustrate that local families overwhelmingly want their children to be able to return to in-person learning, but given the number of potential barriers to do so safely, Curtis also emphasized that honing their approach to distance learning is still high on the list of priorities.
“[It’s] something we have to get better at and we plan to get better,” Curtis said of the district’s online instruction offerings.
But again, it’s an issue that conjures ever more questions and possible snags in the plan.
“We have had teachers come to us and say, ‘I’m going to have to quit my job if I have to be at home with my kids doing online,’” Curtis said. “We know this is a challenge for all families, so we know it’s something we have to figure out, but it’s been frustrating enough to figure out how we’re going to do the schooling.”
In all populations – staff, students and administrators – there are members who don’t feel comfortable returning given the current state of COVID-19. There are more details that need ironing out than not. A recent update from the state has said that students 11 years or younger cannot wear masks at school. It’s a confounding situation where the only certainty is that the 2020-21 school year will look very different from any year past.
“We can absolutely conclusively say that when someone finishes their senior year next year, they’re not going to be where we thought they were going to be 12 months ago,” said board member Gary Mort.
Equity and Social Justice
The final topic of discussion at Monday’s meeting largely centered around the district’s approach to equity and social justice.
While equity programs that targeted traditionally underserved groups have been a focus at SLSD for some time now, growing wealth inequality, a COVID-19 situation that has been shown to disproportionately affect minority populations and a national social justice protest movement has put these issues even more at the forefront.
“We had already made a commitment in our district to do that equity focus, but with what’s going on in the world, in the United States, in our state, we certainly have to take a stance,” Curtis said. “This is a perfect opportunity to reinvent public education to be what kids really need.”
The first step of the district’s current efforts involved reaching out to students and faculty with the goal of putting together a unified stance to social justice and a group of students at the high school – which already has an existing student equity team that’s working within the community - have decided to write a draft of the proposal themselves given their experiences in SLSD.
“What we’ve heard from both students and teachers working with us is, we have overt racism in our high school,” Curtis added. “People making comments, people pushing kids out and everyone I’ve talked to at the high school has said, ‘Absolutely. That happens,’ and so that’s something that we have to stop.
Additionally, Curtis and Cottage Grove High School principal Kevin Herrington are planning to host a listening session to hear from South Lane students of color and their experiences and concerns locally.
“It’s a safe environment for them to share what their experiences have been in this community and in their schools and if [they] got to tell us what to do, what can we work on first,” Curtis said. “What I tell people all the time is, equity work and social justice work is heart-and-soul work. It’s about peoples’ belief systems. It’s not instructional strategy, so you don’t know where it’s going to go once you get started.”
In the same vein, SLSD may only know where the 2020-21 school year will go once it gets started. There are no directions for a road never travelled and the muddied COVID-19 situation is proving to be a particularly difficult route.
In any case, a unified approach, communication with local families and students, and community trust are at the heart of all these issues and Curtis and the rest of the SLSD board are still finding space for optimism.
“Teachers are saying their relationships with students are stronger than they’ve ever been because they were required to check in [during the COVID-19 shutdown] and they’re still going to be required to check in at least twice a week with each student and family,” Curtis said. “A big step in equity work is understanding the families and what they need.”
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