Malheur County schools kick off distance learning in earnest this week

This week, the Vale School District changed the setup asking parents to pick up their children’s learning materials at the school the child attends. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

VALE – A huge change.

That was the label Jordan Valley social studies teacher Sheryl Douglas used to describe the “new normal” for students across Malheur County after Gov. Kate Brown announced last week Oregon schools will not reopen their doors this year.

The governor’s decision came after she issued orders to extend school closures to the end of March and then the end of April.

The final order by the governor means a monumental shift in teaching emphasis as roughly 5,200 students in the county will interact – and learn – online through such networking systems as Zoom, Google Classroom or via email. The changes will extend through the end of May, when most of the county’s districts end school.

The Enterprise reached out to school districts in the county last week to find out how the new “normal” for educators would work. Nyssa, Ontario, Jordan Valley and Vale school districts responded to questions from the Enterprise.

“I think the best word for it is it has been a huge change from the kind of teaching I am used to,” said Douglas.

Douglas is a veteran educator in the Jordan Valley School District. She began teaching 36 years ago. She is now the social studies instructor for grades seven through 12 for the district.

Typically, Douglas said she teaches from six to 14 students per class.

Douglas said one drawback to the online teaching platform is the absence of face-to-face interaction.

“The relationships are important. I watched many of them (students) grow up and I taught their parents,” said Douglas.

Converting from in-class instruction to online created challenges for each school district. In a sense, a traditional – and complex – system to educate youth stopped, idled and then switched gears in an entirely new direction.

Each school district faced generally the same obstacles. How would students learn from home? If students didn’t own a computer, how could they participate? What if a student’s family did not have access to the internet?

Rusty Bengoa, superintendent of the Jordan Valley School District, said he and his staff began to plan for a major shift to online classes early on.

“We started a couple of weeks ago going through trainings on Google Classroom and Zoom,” said Bengoa.

Bengoa said the district carried enough equipment to help make the transition to online learning easier.

“We checked out 11 Chromebooks. We have 57 kids (district wide) and everybody outside of those 11 had some type of technology that would work,” said Bengoa.

Bengoa said two families in the district faced a slow internet connection, creating a potential problem.

“They have multiple kids so we are paying for an upgrade until the end of school,” said Bengoa.

The district, he said, will use a combination of online learning and teaching packets.

“Our bus driver is delivering the packets. She is taking the packets and dropping them off. Once the students are finished with the packet, they take a picture of it and send it to their teacher,” said Bengoa.

The biggest challenge so far, said Bengoa, is “learning a new platform.”

“It was a learning curve to learn how to educate online and it was a learning curve for kids to learn online,” said Bengoa. “And getting used to not being face to face. It is new and different and takes time to adjust.”

Many teachers, he said, already used online learning tools.

“Most of the staff at the middle school use Google classroom already so most of the kids knew it and how to navigate it,” said Bengoa.

There is no set daily schedule for students as they learn online, he said.

“So far it has gone well. As of right now, everyone is happy,” said Bengoa.

 Douglas said technical training provided by the Malheur Education Service District in Vale helped.

“The way it is working now, all teachers are posting their assignments online and arranging Zoom meetings at various times. For instance, I have one set up for Monday with my world history class. Some teachers are already having Zoom meetings,” said Douglas.

Douglas said most teachers in the district want to host Zoom sessions in the morning.

“We try to space it out a little so students have time to do Zoom lessons and have some kind of interaction with teachers every couple of days,” said Douglas.

Parents in Vale may check out laptops for the remainder of the school year at the school their child attends. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

At Vale School District, more than 200 IPads, Chromebooks and laptops were checked out last week for students, said Superintendent Alisha McBride.

“The devices were checked out to students who did not have access to a device at home,” said McBride.

The devices, she said, are checked out until the end of the school year.

The Vale district, she said, is also distributing learning packets.

“Each week, a new learning packet is prepared for every student in the district,” she said.

The packets, McBride said, are to be picked up by students at the elementary, middle and high schools on Thursdays between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.

“Any remaining packets will be delivered to families by our transportation department staff on Fridays,” said McBride.

The packets include lesson plans and directions for the upcoming week.

“Packets contain learning options for students who have internet access or for students who do not have internet access to ensure that distance learning is accessible to all,” said McBride.

McBride said all staff members – teachers, principals, counselors, specialists – are available through email or Zoom or by phone between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

“Families have been provided with contact information for their child’s teacher. The instructional schedule has been shared with families,” said McBride.

McBride said instruction using Zoom for the high school and the middle school will happen in the mornings.

“And instruction for Willowcreek Elementary School and Vale Elementary School will take place in the afternoons,” said McBride.

If a student can’t join a Zoom class, said McBride, the student’s teacher will contact the family to discuss the materials in the learning packets.

“Teachers have the option of providing Zoom instruction from home or from school, as long as they adhere to the social distancing protocols,” said McBride.

McBride said student work will be graded and final quarter grades will be issued.

McBride also said transition from traditional education methods to online was a “huge shift.”

“We are learning along the way and making adjustments as needed,” said McBride.

McBride said the switch did mean extra costs for the district.

“We have purchased Zoom video licenses and phone license for staff to use during the closure,” she said.

McBride said the district also spent money to buy school supplies for kindergarten through eighth-grade students to use at home.

“We’ve also had additional costs associated with preparing learning packets,” said McBride.

In Nyssa, Superintendent Darren Johnson said many students don’t have an internet connection at home. The district bought “hotspots” that will be delivered to homes where students need connectivity to access online learning.

Johnson said the goal is to help students continue learning at the highest level possible. 

“Of course it isn’t the same as if kids were physically here, but our teachers are working very hard to make this happen,” he wrote in an email. 

At the elementary level, Nyssa is sending weekly paper packets. At the middle and high schools, teachers are using online platforms to deliver instruction.

To keep parents informed, the district relies heavily on an app that can be downloaded online.

Nyssa will continue to provide distance learning options for seniors who passed but who wish to continue learning in their courses.

In Ontario, elementary students have the option to complete work packets or access their materials online, said Taryn Smith, district communications coordinator.

Paper packets are available outside each elementary school and the district office, tucked inside unused Argus Observer news boxes.

“The middle and high school are basically operating all online and have seen a very high number of students participating,” Smith wrote.

Students and parents can access materials via the district’s website along with how-to videos in English and Spanish.

Smith said teachers and staff members are checking in with students by phone and through the online platform Google Hangouts to touch base and make sure that students have access to the materials given.

“The Ontario School District is prioritizing these check-ins,” Smith wrote. “We want to make sure our students are doing well academically, but also mentally. We know that a lot of our students live in high-stress environments, and even those who do not are experiencing anxiety in the absence of their regular routines.”


As long as we can, the Malheur Enterprise will provide free access to all stories related to COVID-19. With businesses closed and not advertising, community support for this service is vital. Help one of two ways:

SUBSCRIBE HERE- $5 a month, automatically.

CONTRIBUTE HERE – to our LOCAL NEWS FUND. Tax deductible, and anonymous if you wish.

Thank you!