ONTARIO – After much debate, Ontario High School will finally join the rest of Malheur County providing all students in-person classes, starting Monday, April 19.

The Ontario School Board voted unanimously Monday to approve a new plan, which represents the last, best effort from a team of high school teachers tasked with finding a way to get kids back in school.

The new plan has students going to school in the morning, and catching up remotely online in the afternoon. Each day, teachers will teach nine classes. But for students, the day will still consist of only six periods, with three of those potentially in-person.

According to the plan, Mondays and Tuesdays, students will attend periods one, two and three at school in the morning, followed by periods one through six online in the afternoon. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, periods four, five and six be in a classroom in the morning, again followed by periods one through six online in the afternoon.

Students can choose to attend a mix of in-person and online classes or they can continue attending all six of their classes online.

Board Director Craig Geddes, who is also the director of environmental health for Malheur County, reminded students that the decision doesn’t mean that a full return to normal.

“Going back to school only works with precaution,” he said. “This is not permission to take off your mask. This is not permission to have parties after school without your masks.”

But stern warnings aside, the board was palpably relieved to arrive at a solution that teachers are willing to accept after weeks of tense meetings that had put them at loggerheads with the board and some in the community.

Up until recently, Ontario High School had been an outlier in Malheur County for choosing not to bring all its students back full time. The largest high school in the county had so far provided only an expanded version of limited in-person instruction while maintaining all credit-granting classes online. 

Gov. Kate Brown’s March 12 declaration that all schools must offer an in-person option by April 19 signified the potential for important changes for Ontario. 

But at an Ontario School Board meeting on March 29, Ontario teachers pushed back against the notion that they could simply “get the kids back in school.” 

With teachers insisting that they want students back in the building, community and even board members questioned their motives, suggesting that teachers were looking for reasons not to fully reopen the high school. 

The meeting was also meant to address updated guidance from the governor which reduced the mandated space between school children from 6 to 3 feet in counties with a case rate lower than 200 per 100,000 people over two weeks. Malheur County is one such place.

Despite these changes at the state level, Ontario teachers and staff said that the best thing for their students is to sustain the status quo, even if that means operating without a full day of in-person class. 

In a presentation given over Zoom, teachers Ryan Roulston, Jack Lloyd, Jennifer Yano and Tracey Watts explained that their top priority had to be protecting students’ ability to earn credits to graduate. They said that they had considered every option for bringing students back for a full day of teaching, and that none seemed viable.

They said that while social distancing, meals and transportation were among the issues the high school would need to overcome if it were to reopen fully for in-person instruction, the biggest obstacle was the decision by families on whether to return to campus. Even if the school fully reopened, students could still opt to take classwork remotely.

“We all want them back in school all day long, but until the governor says to do that, our hands are tied,” said Jodi Elizondo, principal at Ontario High School. She suggested that a majority of families would not send their students for in-person learning.  

Attendance at the existing in-person programming has been dismal, with only about 10% of those invited to come to school actually showing up. And the teachers and Elizondo based the rest of their argument on a pair of surveys conducted by the high school which showed that 77% of students and 64% of parents opposed returning to campus. The surveys were conducted through the high school’s Facebook page and website, and the school made three reminder calls to each family asking them to participate. 

However, not everyone was convinced by the data.

“I’m not super keen on non-scientific surveys of kids and parents,” said Ken Hart, an Ontario city councilor and father of a freshman at Ontario High School. 

“This surveys’ questions were stated in a manner that made coming back to school in person seem negative,” said Ella Draper, a student at Ontario High School and daughter of board member Derrick Draper. “One example of a question was ‘I wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing a mask’ or ‘I wouldn’t feel comfortable walking in lines.’”

She also pushed back on a key claim of the teachers’ presentation: that Ontario High School was doing its students a service by offering what Elizondo qualified as “35 minutes of uninterrupted, face-to-face virtual instruction” per class. 

Draper said that on two recent occasions, two of her live classes had been canceled because of staff meetings. 

Her point was supported by fellow student Emma Goldthorpe, who said that she had been able to attend only “about half” of her classes live that day. 

“A lot of them were the same excuses about not having a (Google) Meet because of meetings or because of other time restraints,” said Goldthorpe. 

Board members, meanwhile, were stuck on the question of what Ontario High School was concretely proposing would change with their suggested plan. 

“My question is, (the previous model) sounds like what you guys are talking about,” said Director Craig Geddes. “So explain to me why this isn’t comprehensive distance learning.” 

Despite Elizondo’s explanation that with hybrid learning, all students, not just selected students, would be invited back to campus, the board members remained skeptical of the proposed plan.

Derrick Draper raised the possibility of using Edgenuity, an online platform, for students who chose to stay home. 

However, that proposal was immediately criticized as inequitable by Elizondo. 

In addition to forcing kids from live classes to an online platform in the middle of their final trimester, Elizondo said that “Edgenuity is an awful choice for our kids. It totally sets them up for failure. Edgenuity is very difficult and there’s no teacher instruction, it’s all self-led. We can’t force kids to come to school at the expense of some who can’t and just kind of leave them twisting in the wind.” 

Board Chair Renae Corn agreed. 

“Edgenuity is typically used for credit recovery,” she said. “If you’ve got a student that’s not motivated, then it’s going to be very difficult for the students to convert to that.” 

Another instructional model raised by the board and rejected by Ontario staff was simultaneous teaching, in which a teacher instructs both online and in-person students at once. This is the model currently in use at Ontario’s elementary and middle schools. 

But teachers said that results were sure to be worse at the high school level. 

“If something goes astray, if you have to spend a little more time on something in an elementary classroom, you can kind of rearrange your day,” said Watts. “With the way our classes are set up, if something goes astray or you wind up spending more time with a kid that’s in front of you rather than the ones online, they go on to their next teacher in 20 minutes and we don’t see them again till the next day.” 

These logistical and ethical dilemmas were not a game-changer for community members, who remained stalwart in their desire to see their kids back in school. 

“Let us know as soon as possible if this is going to be the model in August, because folks like me will probably, as much as I would hate to do it, move my kid to a school district that allows in-person teaching,” said Hart. 

Derrick Draper agreed. 

“The requirement to offer comprehensive distance learning is for this year. It’s not going to carry over into next year,” said Superintendent Nikki Albisu.

By the end of the meeting, frustration had mounted on all sides. 

“As somebody who’s supposed to help lead our team through these tough decisions, we have spent, obviously, hours and hours and hours and days and days on this,” said Elizondo. “When we say we’ve exhausted all of our options and thoughts and avenues to trying to get these kids closer to having a more normal year while still preserving what we know to be the most successful, understanding that the board wouldn’t have the context to make a plan for us, what am I to do, if we’ve presented all of the data and facts and rationale and reasoning, if it’s not being factored into the board’s opinion on how things should go?” 

“I have to be honest, I’m afraid for kids at this point,” she added. 

In the end, the board and Elizondo agreed that she would contact similar districts in Hermiston and Baker to consult them on what they were doing, and then have her team come up with a new plan to present by Monday, April 5. 

The plan that was ultimately presented addressed most, if not all, of the concerns raised in the March 29 board meeting.

It allows for students to receive credit for the learning they do on-campus. It maintains six full periods of live instructional time for students learning from home. And the research the teachers did into not just Hermiston and Baker, but Molalla and Cottage Grove suggested that for next year, the most viable model for comprehensive distance learning may be an online “academy” which is completely separate from regular high school programming.

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

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