ONTARIO – The 2,417 students in Ontario, Malheur County’s largest school district, will make a staggered return to class beginning Wednesday, Feb. 10.

Elementary and middle school students will return then to a full day of school for the first time in months. Elementary schools will operate fully four days a week and Ontario Middle School will operate five days a week.

High schoolers won’t return to school until Wednesday, Feb. 17, and Ontario School District officials are still working out exactly what the return will look like for them. Rather than bringing back the whole student body for a full day of in-person instruction, Ontario has opted to expand limited in-person instruction for only some high schoolers, whose classes for credit will continue to be online-only. 

This decision means more Ontario high schoolers will be doing the majority of their coursework online than at any other high school in Malheur County. Ontario is the last district in the county to return to something like normal teaching.

District staff say Ontario’s comparatively large size complicates the logistics of a full return. 

“Probably more smaller communities have pressed go and started in than other communities in the state,” said Superintendent Nicole Albisu in a Jan. 22 meeting of the Ontario School Board. 

“OHS, being our largest facility with the most students and staff, poses a considerable challenge when considering sanitization, transportation, social distancing, and the limitations of student cohorts,” according to Taryn Smith, district communications coordinator l.

A district survey found that 57% of 686 community members said they were excited to have children return to school in-person, and 30% said they were hesitant. Only 13% said they were opposed. 

The sentiment among teachers was more evenly split, with 49% excited and 42% hesitant about going back to regular teaching in the classroom.. Nine percent were opposed.

Central to Ontario’s logistical concerns which have dominated planning as educators prep for the return to school are transportation and meal service. 

The district will take measures already implemented in other local districts, like blocking off bus seats and not allowing children from different households to sit together to ensure 6 feet of distance between all unrelated children.

“Drivers will be assisted by support staff that will assist in contact tracing and visually screening for symptoms of COVID-19,” said Smith.

About 6 out of 10 parents said in a survey that they would continue organizing transportation for their children, which eases the pressure on the district as it limits the number of children for whom bus routes must be established.

The biggest change to meal service at Ontario is the end of buffet dining. Children will no longer form lines and serve themselves from stations like the salad bar. Rather, food will be served to them, either in the cafeteria or in their classrooms, depending on the social distancing constraints of each school. 

As has been the case elsewhere, Ontario is required to provide at least 35 square feet of space per person when considering how many people will be allowed in a classroom. 

Classrooms are being modified to fit the guidelines, with all fabric-covered furniture and rugs removed, and extraneous furnishings cleared out so that there can be more space to spread out students. 

Ontario is planning to expand the on-site testing begun through a partnership between the Malheur County Health Department and the Malheur Education Service District in December. In the meantime, school employees have become eligible for the Covid vaccine. 

“We are not requiring a vaccine for staff or students, but we do want to encourage vaccination of staff and ensure that our staff are kept informed of vaccination opportunities as they become available,” said Smith.

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

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