Yoncalla schools prep for uncertain fall

Four months after the initial shutdown due to coronavirus concerns, plans for the reopening of area schools are starting to come into focus.

While much is still up in the air as the debate rages nationally over the safety of reopening schools come fall, Yoncalla School District (YSD) has begun finalizing its initial plan for a restart in late August thanks to the work of the YSD Reopening Committee, formed in late May and made up of parents, teachers, principals, the superintendent, custodians, the maintenance supervisor, the bus company, food service coordinators and representatives from the health department.

“We are trying to come up with a plan,” said Brian Berry, Yoncalla School District superintendent and principal of the high school. “The nice thing about Yoncalla is we’re small.”

Small, in this case, means that schools in Yoncalla will — as it stands now — be able to operate at a level much closer to normal than schools with larger student bodies.

The Oregon Department of Education (ODE) guidelines require that in indoor spaces, each person must have a minimum of 35 square feet of personal space, a requirement that Yoncalla is able to meet at the elementary, middle and high school levels, having room for about 25 students per classroom on average.

Where districts like South Lane have been forced to divide their students into “A” and “B” cohorts, each attending school two days per week, Yoncalla’s size will tentatively allow students to attend school Monday-Thursday for their normal hours, though Berry stressed the ongoing shakiness of the plans.

“This could change tomorrow and that’s been frustrating for all of us,” Berry said.

“We did a parent survey and [parents in Yoncalla] overwhelmingly want their kids back in school and that doesn’t really surprise me. But, my job is to make sure everyone’s safe and some of the things that are going to happen to ensure peoples’ safety, some people may not agree with, so then obviously they’ll have a choice as parents on what they wanna do.”

Students who do attend in-person classes will be organized into cohorts based on math level at the high school and based on grade at the elementary level. The cohorts will remain together throughout the day with teachers rotating classrooms. However, there are sure to be many parents who don’t yet feel comfortable sending their children back into a school environment and Yoncalla is prepared.

“We’re going to have a distance option which obviously will be much better than it was in March when we didn’t have a clue. We were just thrown into it,” Berry said.

In YSD’s distance-learning model, students will be able to check out district computers from their respective schools and, once set up, will be able to access their classroom lessons online. Students who choose not to attend on-site classes will also still be able to participate in their school’s extracurricular activities.

In addition to ODE’s square footage requirement, the department is also asking schools to place a strong emphasis on hand hygiene once students return, restrict non-essential visitors and provide routine cleaning and sanitizing of classrooms.

It’s that final point that may be one of the largest day-to-day changes for everyone involved.

“I’ve talked with [classroom staff] and told them, ‘You know, you guys are going to have to become custodians too.’ That’s the only way we’re going to be able to pull this off,” Berry said of what will be a near-constant need to keep school areas sanitized. But, classroom staff will likely not be alone in their new duties.

“I think the cleaning piece, at the elementary level teachers teach that more than at the high school level. The high schoolers are going to be in for a rude awakening because that stuff has to happen and we don’t have the money to hire new custodians. We just don’t. I wish we did.”

Within YSD’s reopening plan, the district also wants to remind staff, students and parents that bussing will still be available on normal routes with one student per seat; meals will still be served, though students will eat in their classrooms; recess will be done in cohort groups; all field trips are cancelled; and athletic events remain up in the air as they are dependent on further ODE and OSAA guidance.

As Berry stated — and as the nation as a whole has seen — plans in the climate of COVID-19 are always subject to change.

As August approaches, there may still end up being more questions than answers, but Berry and YSD are adamant about doing whatever’s necessary to place health, safety and comfort at the top of their priorities.

“The trust level is going up in the school district,” Berry said. “[Going back] is the parents call. If they don’t feel like it’s safe for their kids to be in that building, then I don’t want them there. I want to work with them however I can to keep them on track … but we’re doing the best we can with the information we have to work with.”

North Douglas, Elkton and South Lane School Districts could not be reached for comment before press time regarding their reopening  plans and/or changes.

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