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Ontario School District working on plan to bring students back for in-person learning

Mom Tess Osborn says trying to keep four children engaged in learning from home has been frustrating and exhausting.

MALHEUR COUNTY, Ore. — Students in the Ontario School District have been learning remotely for nearly a full year. 

Malheur County has not met state COVID-19 metrics to qualify for in-person learning.

However, in December, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced the state would be handing control over to local communities when it comes to bringing students back for in-person learning.

Now the Ontario School District is working on a plan to get kids back inside the classroom as soon as next month.

Bringing students back would help families like the Osborns. Tess Osborn and her husband have five kids, four of them in the Ontario School District.

You want these kids to be happy and you want them to grow, they're your children," Osborn said. "But at the same time, having them stay at home and learning is so detrimental on their mental health."

Osborn told KTVB that keeping her daughters engaged with school through the pandemic hasn't been easy. Most students in the district have been learning remotely since last spring.

“I actually had to switch to graveyard [shifts] because of it, which I thought would help but I really don't think it did,” she said. “I'm either exhausted tired and can't function, or I'm asleep.”

Osborn works in a long-term care facility and her husband works in law enforcement. She said learning from home has affected her kids both in class and mentally.

“I can see it, they say 'why, I’m just going to sit here all day anyways.' They don’t understand,” she said. “I don’t think my kids have learned a whole lot.”

Now the district is working on a plan to get students back safely and it could be as soon as next month for elementary schools.

“I think in the back of our minds we hope it’s going to be February 1,” Superintendent Nicole Albisu said. “I’m guessing it’s going to be somewhere between February 1 and 15."

Since the start of the new year, the district has been working on a plan that would bring students back safely without putting their health or staff member’s health at risk.

“We are still required to follow the guidance set forth by [the Oregon Department of Education], so the protocols,” Albisu said.

The state outlines a series of protocols in its school reopening plan that requires students to wear masks and socially distance while at school and on school buses.

As the district plans for a return to in-person learning, COVID-19 metrics in Malheur County show a continued high rate of spread of the virus.

According to the Oregon Health Authority, distance learning is recommended for counties that have a case rate higher than 200 per 100,000 population, more than 60 cases over 14 days for small and medium counties, and a test positivity rate higher than 10%.

The latest metrics show that Malheur County has not met the criteria recommended for moving to in-person learning.

During the two-week period between Dec. 27 and Jan. 9, the county’s case count was 210, and the cases per 100,000 population was 655.6. The test positivity rate was at 12.5%.

Albisu told KTVB that, as they move forward with re-opening plans, they are aiming to keep the safety of everyone in mind while there are still high metrics. She also said the state education department is planning on changing some of the metrics next week.

There is another problem with trying to bring students back in person: liability. The Oregon Legislature passed a bill during their latest special session that would protect school districts from liability. However, Albisu said, there is an issue with the wording in the bill.

“It said we had to adhere to the “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidance,” she said. “Well, the “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidance says that, it really specifies that if your county is in the red, you are not to re-open.”

According to Albisu, there would have to be changes made to the guidance in order to have the liability coverage.

Despite the hangups, the move to bring students back to the classroom has the blessing of the county health department.

“I think this is a decision that every family has to make that is going to be personal,” said Sarah Poe, director of the Malheur County Health Department. “Nothing is 100% safe and we recognize that at this time there will be risks.”

Poe also said there is risk and hardships on families when students stay home.

“We believe most students learn best in person,” she said.” I actually think the way that Malheur County is now able to have their kids back in school full time is probably the best way we can do it under the circumstances.”

Ultimately, moms like Tess Osborn say the best option for working parents is in-person learning.

“We should be able to send our kids to school if we feel safe doing it,” Osborn said. “If the other people get to still feel safe keeping their kids at home if that's what they choose to do.”

There are still a lot of things in play for the Ontario School District. Not everything is known at this time what school would look like when students do return to in-person learning. Albisu said high school students probably wouldn’t return until the beginning of March.

The superintendent will discuss the plans with the school board at their next meeting on Thursday.

Until then, the district is offering a survey to parents to see who would want to send their kids back and who wouldn't. Staff is also welcome to take part in the survey so the district can see how many of their staff members would feel comfortable coming back.

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