Full days, masks on: Malheur County heads back to school

Drew Barnes, automotive instructor at Vale High School, prepares for his students to come back to school during the last week of summer break on Thursday, Aug. 12. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)

UPDATED Aug. 24 with an interview with Scott Poncy.

VALE – The school year is starting with Harper and Jordan Valley in school since Monday, Aug. 16, Vale and Ontario beginning Friday and Nyssa and Adrian starting school Monday, Aug. 23. 

Enrollment, though it may fluctuate still due to the new masking mandate, is up across most districts after a year during which distance learning during Covid pushed some families to pull their kids out of district schools for other options. 

Local districts reported their enrollments as of Aug. 16: Ontario, 2,306; Nyssa, 1,208; Vale, 875; Four Rivers Community School, 336; and Adrian, 275. 

Ontario was one of two districts, along with Four Rivers, which did not report growth in enrollment. 

“We are still seeing a little hesitancy from our kinder and elementary families in enrolling amidst the local spread of the virus,” said Taryn Smith, public relations and communications coordinator for the district.

The schools are returning to near-normal classroom teaching, although everyone in a school building will have to wear masks. This is the third year that school has been impacted by the pandemic that is now surging again in Oregon and across the U.S. 

Mark Redmond, superintendent of the Malheur Education Service District, said that districts will begin this year with record amounts of funding.

“The State School Fund was funded by the Legislature slightly above what it was the last biennium,” he said. “The Student Success Act, the tax revenue has generated quite a bit more money than last year. And districts also have the stimulus funding that they’ve received from the last three stimulus packages. All of these funding streams are providing districts with their highest amount of money they’ve seen.”

New administrators will be present in some districts.In Nyssa, Dave McDonald will assume the role of vice principal at the high school. He comes to Nyssa from Idaho, though he is from the Midwest originally. He taught social studies before becoming vice principal at Nampa High School. He then served as principal in eastern Idaho for five years before accepting the position in Nyssa. In an email to the Enterprise, McDonald said he was “very excited to be at Nyssa High School and to be a part of the great things that have happened and are going to happen here. Go Dawgs!”

In Vale, Marti Bair will become Head Teacher at Willowcreek Elementary School, where she has served as a teacher for 13 years. Bair graduated from Willowcreek Elementary School herself when growing up in Vale, before going on to Vale High School and then Utah State University, where she studied political science education. She currently teaches 5th-8th grade math and also 5th-8th grade careers.  

“Willowcreek School is such a great place to work,” said Bair in an email to the Enterprise. “The staff, students and families are all very positive and strive to work together to accomplish goals.”

In Ontario, Scott Poncy will be the vice principal at May Roberts Elementary School. He said that he recently moved to the area from southern California to enjoy “a slower pace of life in the country.”

He said that he has over 15 years of experience in the field, including work in special education and in other administrative roles.

In Vale, teachers Drew and Whitney Barnes, a married couple, prepared their classrooms, cleaning, tinkering with equipment and decorating the environment to be ready for the influx of students. He is the automotive instructor at Vale High School, while she is a kindergarten teacher at Vale Elementary School. 

“For the class that I teach, online only goes so far,” said Drew Barnes, referring to the highly physical nature of automotive work. “This year, we have a lot of catching up to do. Hopefully we get a chance to make up some of those missed shop activities.” 

Barnes said that he would still focus on making sure his teaching was high quality, rather than trying to do more to make up for lost time. 

Last year, Whitney Barnes’ kindergarten class was self-contained, having no interaction with other classes as part of Covid cohorting measures. 

“They couldn’t eat lunch together, they couldn’t play on the playground together,” she said. 

This year, grade-level cohorting is implemented, but classes within a grade can mix.

“When we took the kindergarteners to the cafeteria for the first time in summer school, they said, ‘Wow!’ because they’d never been in there,” said Theresa Meiwald, Vale Elementary School principal. This year, the kids will eat in the cafeteria, take books from the library, and more. Barnes is particularly excited about the hiring of a music teacher, which will be a new experience for her students. 

“They get to have those normal experiences that all kids deserve to have,” she said. Barnes said that despite concerns that small children are unable to wear masks effectively, her students “do a fantastic job” and usually need just “a couple more reminders.”

And Drew Barnes said that while he doesn’t agree with the mask mandate, it’s worth it if his students can get back in the shop. 

“I’ll do whatever it takes to teach students again in person,” he said.

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

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