Malheur schools plan strategies for online education, graduations as COVID-19 closures extend through April

Lunch bags are ready to go in Vale as schools provide meals during the statewide school closure that began this week, in an effort to stem the coronavirus outbreak. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess)

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VALE – Malheur County’s school superintendents are grappling with ways to reach students during the extended statewide school closure due to COVID-19 – and also to ensure that seniors can claim their diplomas this spring.

Those were among the main concerns Wednesday as the local superintendents gathered in Vale to get the latest word from state officials on the evolving situation for schools.

One day earlier, Gov. Kate had announced that schools statewide will remain closed to students until April 28, extending an earlier closure to the end of March. Districts, however, are planning ahead for the possibility of an even longer closure. 

The discussion Wednesday focused on rolling out plans to ensure equitable education access for all of their students, provision of food services during the shutdown, and timely graduation for this year’s seniors. Meeting at the Malheur Education Service District office, the county superintendents participated by teleconference in the session with Oregon Department of Education officials.

The state plans to provide more guidance for superintendents in a series of meetings on Tuesdays and Fridays, said Mark Redmond, ESD superintendent.

“As of right now, all of the districts are planning on having their staff back March 30,” Redmond said. “And I say back in terms of working, following the workplace guidelines, because we have some staff who are in those groups that are more susceptible to COVID-19… so, we are not going to put them at risk.” 

Redmond said in April, the superintendents will launch programs for students to continue their education while they are still unable to be in the schools. They are looking at online options using programs such as Google Classroom, Google Hangouts, Zoom, and others. They also are looking into instructional packets. 

The school staffs will use March 30-31 to finalize their plans.

Among the obvious issues, Redmond said, is connectivity for online learning. 

“Schools are trying to make different accommodations if they choose to go online, or provide online supplemental education, because then how can they make sure all students have access?” he said. 

The smaller schools in particular may want to consider establishing Internet hotspots to facilitate connectivity, Redmond said. 

“We are also being cautioned by the state about that,” he said, noting there may be some constraints when adapting plans for students on Individualized Education Plans and plans for children with disabilities.

“We have to be able to meet those needs, so we are being cautioned on going down the online route,” he said.

Another issue is distancing as students return to school. The superintendents are pushing for allowing students back into schools in groups under 10. 

Redmond said the Department of Education has not yet been able to provide guidance on that, but officials are consulting with the Oregon Health Authority. 

The Department of Education is also looking at graduation issues.

“As a whole state, we are looking at waivers for possible changes in the graduation requirements. That could be the number of credits. It could be the number of hours. It could be stuff like not requiring senior projects. All of the above,” Redmond said. 

Graduation rites also are a concern.

 “Under the governor’s current restrictions, we wouldn’t be able to have a ceremony,” said Alisha McBride, Vale School District superintendent. “So, it really just depends on what the restrictions are at the time. No decisions have been made. Because the guidance and the restrictions have changed daily.” 

A major concern for Redmond is the status of Student Investment Act money. Districts face an April 15 deadline to submit their applications to the state for this money, which is targeted at boosting student success. 

 “We hope to have more guidance from the Department of Education in the next week or so,” McBride said of the matter. 

Districts are still planning to submit their applications for the funds on April 15. 

The Vale School District has already submitted its application, McBride said. 

“There is a hesitancy now, because a lot of those plans include hiring of individuals. And the last thing you want to do is hire somebody and then have to turn around and let them go,” Redmond said. “That’s my biggest thing. What does that funding look like, because a lot of it could be personnel.” 

While that topic came up in the meeting with the state, Redmond said the state agency was focused primarily on the short-term.

Redmond said the state made it clear that districts should make high school seniors their main priority moving forward. That means making sure they get the credits and the hours they need to graduate, Redmond said. 

The second priority would be grades 9- 11, making sure those students avoid falling behind on the path to graduation two or three years from now.

The next priority, according to the state, would be kindergarten through eighth grade, Redmond said. 

Redmond said that schools last week were focused on feeding students, and superintendents said those plans were working satisfactorily. 

“We served over a hundred yesterday and over a hundred today,” McBride said. “And the Vale School District will continue to provide the Grab-and-Go lunches on what would have been regularly scheduled instructional days, through the closure.

 “We will continue the same format that we have been operating this week. If it was a regularly scheduled instructional day, there will be a Grab-and-Go lunch and breakfast option.”

Darren Johnson, Nyssa School District superintendent, said his district will provide meals through the federally funded Summer Food Service Program, and is setting up six drop-off locations across the district where students can pick up meals.  

He said the district delivered 528 breakfasts and lunches to students on Monday, March 16. Nyssa’s meal program was aided by volunteer employees and community members. 

The program, set for Monday through Wednesday, will resume on Monday, March 30, after spring break. Johnson urged families requiring food assistance during that time to contact the Nyssa Food Pantry. 

The Ontario School District handed out more than 400 meals to students that Monday as well, and has shifted its distribution time to between 10:30 and 11:30, Taryn Smith, school district public information coordinator said.  

McBride and Redmond emerged from this week’s meeting with the Department of Education feeling better about things, compared to their first meeting on Friday, March 13.

“I don’t think anybody was able to anticipate how this was going to roll out, so I think they are working as quickly as they can,” McBride said of the state.  

“They did have a lot of our questions from last time answered,” Redmond said. “We are hoping by this next Friday, when we have our next one, we can get some more directions and answers, and it is pretty obvious that they are working as hard as they can,” Redmond said. 

School districts are also coordinating with each other to ensure that any student from any district gets fed. Department of Education officials said that schools will be reimbursed for lunch expenditures. 

Schools also will continue to receive their state school funding as if students were in school during the closure, McBride said. 

Redmond said providing “equitable education for all of our students” is the big challenge for now.

“Our top priority moving forward,” Johnson said, “is making sure all our seniors are receiving the instruction they need in order to graduate. Then, to keep all our other HS students on track to graduate with credits. And of course, we are focused on providing the best education we can under the circumstances to all our students.” 

McBride also plans to focus on graduating seniors at the next state conversation.

“How are we going to be able to provide seniors with an opportunity to graduate this spring? That is my top priority right now,” McBride said. “Once we have that question answered … how can we help our ninth through eleventh grade students to acquire the credit that they need? Because high school is credit-based. And then how can we continue to provide accessible, supplemental, support for students, K through 8?” 

“And I feel we need some of that information immediately, so that we can begin helping our seniors and also giving them some answers,” she added.

News tip? Contact reporter Joe Siess: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.