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Gov. Kate Brown says Oregon school buildings must stay closed

  • Updated
  • 3 min to read

No, Oregon school buildings cannot reopen this school year.

Yes, most high school seniors will graduate as expected. And go to college, if that’s part of their plan.

Those were among the primary takeaways in the messages Gov. Kate Brown and Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill delivered at a Wednesday afternoon news conference.

It’s a hard choice to continue keeping school buildings closed, Brown acknowledged, but it’s necessary to save lives.

In a time span unique to the COVID-19 pandemic, Brown temporarily closed schools March 17, anticipating the state could reopen for business in a couple of weeks.

Since then, she’s implemented more measures designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, instructing residents to stay home, and closing bars and restaurants.

There is no disputing the challenges and hardships such action creates for people, Brown said.

“This is hard on every single Oregonian.”

The best thing state officials can do for families with school-age kids right now is to give them certainty by closing in-person classes for the rest of this school year, Brown said.

“School will continue the best it can through distance learning.”

By closing buildings now, education officials can fully turn to investing time and resources to that endeavor, she added.

Brown said she recognized high school seniors are among the most impacted by this decision, even as it’s not likely a surprise to anyone at this point.

Those students are just weeks away from completing a 13-year journey. Districts have now been given a directive to find ways to honor that, as well as moving seniors into their next phase.

Every senior already on track to graduate will receive a passing grade for their courses, which meets state credit requirements, Brown said, adding she “refuses to punish students” over a situation they have no control over.

As well, those headed for college cannot be penalized by public Oregon universities for changes to their education caused by the pandemic under Brown’s rules.

Seniors who were not on track in March to finish school on time will be given extra attention to “get across the finish line,” Brown said, noting her administration is already seeing creative tactics and expects “nothing less” to see seniors graduate.

If there is a sliver of a silver lining in this moment, said Aaron Duff, superintendent of Milton-Freewater Unified School District, it’s that his staff will be able to spend more time working with students who need that help in catching up.

“We’re going to try and get to 100% graduation with this extra time.”

More than 75% of the McLoughlin High School class of 2020 is on track to walk, if there’s any walking to to be done, Duff said.

The new way to do school is also freeing up staff to work with seniors on a fifth-year plan, he said, including helping them apply to college, create a job resume or enlist in military service.

“In normal years we’ve had limited ability to do that,” he said.

ODE has been listening to teachers, parents and students to fine-tune its response to graduation and other senior traditions, Duff said.

“I come back to this point: These kids have been working 13 years for this … let’s honor them.”

While graduation is now set for June 6, Duff is not ruling out ideas to push a ceremony back to August.

“We have to hold our ground. There are some things important enough we can wait a month to do it right,” he said.

“This is a 13-year walk. If that’s what it takes, that’s what we’ll do.”

Superintendent Laure Quaresma said Wednesday she hasn’t heard from anyone at ODE, despite that state officials said they are meeting with all of Oregon’s 197 school district leaders.

But Quaresma, Superintendent of Athena-Weston School District, hasn’t needed the state to tell her what’s needed in her district.

Before spring break at the end of March, the district ordered 300 thumb drives. The area served by her schools has numerous large spots not served by any internet provider, Quaresma said.

To combat that, teachers record lessons on thumb drives for high school kids, and the students record their work from school-issued Chromebooks back onto the drive, which is exchanged weekly.

Younger students are using Seesaw, an interactive online program that allows students to send their teachers messages and get responses.

“Students can videotape themselves reading,” Quaresma said.

Her staff is calling families regularly, which parents love, and high school students are finally realizing what it is to miss school, she said.

“They are missing that community part of high school.”

Weston-McEwen High School seniors are all on track to get a diploma, and celebrating that moment is on the minds of many.

“We’re getting the creative juices going,” the superintendent said.

Plans call for graduation to fall at the end of May, but parents are beginning to explore the idea of summer celebratory events, Quaresma said.

ODE director Gill said summer school options will be decided by each district and funding, and milestone events such as prom, baccalaureate and graduation will be dependent on guidance from Oregon Health Authority.

His team is asking districts to consider rescheduling such gatherings or taking them online, Gill said.

“We’re asking them to work with students, families and the community at large.”

Once plans for Oregon’s high school seniors are squared away, attention will turn to creating guidance for ninth through 11th grades, Gill said.

For every grade, improvements in remote education will come week by week, he predicted, noting that training teachers almost overnight to teach in this way has taken tremendous effort.

Some parents are frustrated with a ”patchwork response” they’ve seen from schools, Gill said.

He asked for grace and patience for all, noting that decisions are being made as understanding of coronavirus grows and pointing out the entire education system has flipped from children coming into schools to staying out of buildings.

Brown did not directly address the possibility school buildings could remain closed at the start of the next school year.

“We are watching the data and the modeling,” she said. “We know social distancing measures are working.”

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Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 509-526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.