Kevin Purnell, superintendent of Adrian School District, stands outside the elementary/middle school, where he is also principal. (Photo: The Enterprise/Liliana Frankel)

ADRIAN – Students and parents in the Adrian School District kept up the pressure to return to class full-time, staging one protest last week and then showing up to insist on a full day of school.

The return-to-class move on Thursday, Dec. 17, was the first such protest in Oregon, according to state education officials.

Adrian and other schools are limited to having students in class no more than two hours a day and still must rely on virtual learning for the bulk of teaching. School restrictions have been in place in one form or another since last March as Oregon confronted the coronavirus.

School officials said 102 students, about one third of the Adran district’s student body, participated in the “Parent Force Open.”

Earlier in the week, dozens of students, parents and staff had traipsed through the snow, holding signs with slogans like “Kids Over Politics” and “Schools Are Essential” and chanting “Let us learn!” as part of the first leg of the protest. Students spoke about the effects of distance learning on their health and their willingness to comply with safety measures if it meant returning to campus.

“It was nice. The people who spoke, spoke from the heart,” said Kevin Purnell, district superintendent.

But by Wednesday, the cheerful tone of the rally had given way to defiance. Apparently inspired by an offhand comment that Purnell had made at a Dec. 10 Adrian School Board meeting where strategies for reopening were discussed, a group of parents organized to drop their children off for a full day of school on Thursday.

Purnell was forced to backtrack on his statement that “if a group really wanted to protest they would just drop their kids off; schools would then be forced to do something with the kids.” He sent a series of communications to parents in English and Spanish which implored them, for the sake of safety and order, not to take his prior statements literally.

“I explained to parents we didn’t have meals for kids if they do this, that we would not be transporting kids home,” he said.

But, recognizing that the 30-degree weather made it inappropriate to leave children outside, Purnell said, “I’m also not going to bar the doors and kick people out and call the police and all of that.”

The children who attended the protest were brought to their cohort classrooms, where they waited out the portions of the day when limited in-person instruction was not taking place.

“We appreciate that Superintendent Purnell made parents aware of the challenges and all he is doing to care for the students through the protest,” Siegel said.

“We’ve seen protests that have been called peaceful all summer that have happened around the nation and in our state. This is a peaceful protest,” said Purnell. “It’s disruptive, which protests are, but the parents and the community want kids back in school.”

The protests are only the latest manifestation of frustration at school closures in Malheur County, and in Adrian in particular. The Adrian School Board on Sept. 17 sued state officials in Malheur County Circuit, asking they local school officials be granted control over the reopening process for Adrian schools.

Dustin Martinsen, the Vale lawyer representing Adrian, said that there was no formal link between the lawsuit and the protest, and Siegel said his agency doesn’t comment on active litigation.

Mark Redmond, superintendent of the Malheur Education Service District, said that “the ESD supports the Adrian community, parents, teachers, and administration in their collective efforts to provide in-person instruction to their students. These efforts are a testament to the level of expectation and importance the community places on the education of their children. This is why Adrian schools are consistently in the top tier of schools within Oregon.”

The ESD board on Tuesday, Dec. 15, passed a resolution asking Gov. Kate Brown to reopen elementary schools.

Katie Davis, a representative of the parent group which organized the Adrian protests, said after Tuesday’s rally that “I think our kids learned a lot about speaking up and getting their voices heard. I think that’s a great thing for them.”

Siegel said state officials take note of such protests.

“We share a goal with the families in Adrian. We want our students to return to in-person instruction. We are striving to define and implement more ways to mitigate risk for students, staff, and their families and, ultimately, the community.”

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

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