Nyssa School District Superintendent Darren Johnson. (The Enterprise/file)

NYSSA – Following in the footsteps of school districts like Adrian, Harper and Vale, the second-largest district in Malheur County will return 1,150 students to full-time school Jan. 25. 

The Nyssa School Board voted unanimously Monday to fully open its schools.

As at schools around the country, Nyssa students had their routines disrupted when the Covid pandemic hit. School went completely virtual for students in kindergarten through 12th grade until limited in-person instruction allowed for a select few to return in the fall for a maximum of two hours a day. 

In October, Nyssa kindergarteners were allowed to return for limited in-person instruction, followed by the rest of the elementary school, and finally the middle and high school two weeks before Christmas. But attendance was low in the upper grades, said Superintendent Darren Johnson.

Now, students who return to full-time in-person instruction will be expected to attend class every day, provided that they “wear face coverings, maintain physical distancing, stay home when ill, sanitize their hands frequently, and adhere to additional health and safety protocols,” said a Jan. 10 letter from Johnson. 

Those additional protocols will include temperature checks and possibly other measures, depending on what the Oregon Department of Education and Malheur County Health Department recommend. 

The return to school was made possible by a change to state rules. Previously, Malheur County’s high rates of Covid controlled local school districts’ eligibility to open. Since the county has been steadily within the “extreme risk” category since last summer, schools were deemed ineligible to reopen, with few exceptions. 

But on Dec. 23, Gov. Kate Brown changed the Covid metrics from mandatory to advisory for schools, meaning that schools could work with the local health department to determine when it was safe for students and teachers to return to the classroom.

For Nyssa students who aren’t yet comfortable returning to class, there are two options. Students in grades 6 to 12 will have access to the Nyssa Online Academy, a fully virtual learning space. Elementary school students, meanwhile, will have to attend their classes via Zoom, which Johnson foresees will be a challenge.

“It will be distracting to teachers,” said Johnson. However, “teachers felt like that was what they wanted. Anything at this point is challenging, it’s just the best way we could figure to meet the needs of our elementary students at this time.”

It’s currently unclear how many students are expected to be in that position. Nyssa hasn’t formally surveyed its families about their preferences regarding in-person or online instruction since last summer, and school staff are still in the process of calling families to find out their plans now that the return to school has been scheduled. 

For in-person classes, high school students will adhere to a block schedule with four rather than eight classes each day, which enables students to have fewer contacts during the day. Students will also be placed in cohorts with a maximum size of 22, which allow for 35 square feet of space per person in each classroom as guidelines mandate. 

Other logistical challenges that Nyssa has had to confront in the planning process include meals and transportation. 

Meals will be served inside classrooms so that students eat only with their cohorts.

Buses will maintain logs of passengers in the event contact tracing is needed and use tape to guide students to seats at least 3 feet apart from one another and 6 feet away from the driver. 

So far, Nyssa has logged few Covid cases districtwide. In the future, if classes need to quarantine, the district has said that it will support students and teachers to temporarily return to virtual learning. 

At Monday’s meeting, school board members discussed how important in-person learning was to student success. Johnson shared data that showed that the percentage of F’s given among all classroom grades had risen from 4.6% after first semester last year to 7.2% after first semester this year, a significant increase that was closely correlated with attendance. 

“I'm really excited about the fact that we will have kids back in our schools,” said Johnson. “It's the best way we can instruct our students for most of our students who really need connection, the timely help that can be provided by teachers to students, and so many things that add to the value of school life and that add to their growth, not just academically, but socially. I'm very much looking forward to having students back in our buildings to form those connections with each other and with caring adults.”

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

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