HERMISTON — The classrooms may be virtual this year, but local teachers will still be expected to work from their physical classrooms this fall.

Sept. 8 promises to be a first day of school like no other for the Hermiston School District as the state will require it, and most other school districts in the region, to start the year with distance learning. But Hermiston, and other schools in the area, will still require their teachers to educate their students from an empty classroom.

With Hermiston still the local epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, the district’s administration and teachers union now find themselves on opposite sides of the issue.

Although many teachers taught from home when the state shutdown schools last spring to slow the spread of COVID-19, Hermiston Superintendent Tricia Mooney defended the district’s work policy for the 2020-21 school year.

Mooney said the district wants teachers in classrooms because that’s where all of their educational technology and equipment are, not to mention the administrators and instructional coaches who are on hand for support.

She added that there would still be precautions put in place on campuses, including limiting the amount of time teachers spend working after hours on nights and weekends so the custodial staff can clean and sanitize.

If staff members have an underlying condition that makes them vulnerable to COVID-19, Mooney said the district is working with employees to make accommodations.

The Hermiston ZIP code has suffered one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the state, with more than 1,400 total cases since the onset of the pandemic.

In an emailed statement, Hermiston Association of Teachers President Laurel Woodward was critical of the district’s rules.

“Every Hermiston educator is committed to ensuring our students feel loved and supported during this crisis, and that they continue to receive the best education possible regardless of the teaching format our schools use,” she said. “The district’s decision to require large numbers of educators to work together out of a shared building while the COVID pandemic numbers are high in our community not only puts the health and wellness of our district employees and our community at risk, it does nothing to improve the quality of education our students will be receiving.”

Hermiston isn’t the only district with this rule.

Pendleton School District Superintendent Chris Fritsch said Pendleton has a similar policy with exceptions made for staff members with underlying health issues.

Fritsch added that parents are expecting a higher quality education after last year’s sudden transition to distance learning, and teachers operating out of a familiar and resourced environment like the classroom was one of the ways Pendleton could meet that expectation.

The Pendleton area has the county’s second-highest total of COVID-19 cases at 478, but Fritsch said teachers should stay isolated enough in their classrooms to avoid a situation where the virus might spread.

For many districts the goal remains to return to in-person learning. Although the number of cases in Umatilla County has ebbed in recent weeks, local schools are still far from meeting the state’s requirements for comprehensive in-person education.

But Mooney took heart in the county’s downward trend and said it’s evidence that practices like social distancing, hand washing, and the use of face coverings were working.

“We need to stay the course for what we’re doing,” she said.

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