UKIAH — On Aug. 24, the Ukiah School District had achieved something nearly every other public school in Oregon coveted: in-person education.
COVID-19 outbreaks across the state over the summer forced most public schools online this fall, but Ukiah’s minuscule population and geographical isolation helped it meet a narrow set of criteria to make it the only school in Umatilla County to reopen its doors.
The district has an average enrollment of 40 students per year, and they are all taught in a nearly century-old schoolhouse overlooking the town of 200. As staff implement social distancing measures in its normally tight-knit campus, the district also offers a glimpse at the future of in-person education should it come back during the pandemic.
On the morning of Sept. 3, Linda Kerr greets each student walking through the main entrance with a friendly salutation and an external body temperature check.
Downstairs, elementary school teacher Anne Coote and her aide, Reagan Enriquez, are circulating through the class to help students clad with face shields with their lessons before granting them a short “mask break.”
As the children fan out across the playground, Enriquez explains that students are no longer allowed to use the play equipment and are regulated to one toy per week. A couple of weeks into the school year, the children seemed unfazed by their socially distant playtime. One student even managed to get into mischief when Enriquez directed him to stop using his jump rope to repeatedly smack a tree.
Upstairs, history teacher Rob Batease asked Enriquez’s son, sixth-grader Dakota, up to the front of the class to check his work. Dakota dutifully took his worksheet and spread it out in front of a flat screen TV, where Batease could be seen peering at the paper from about 70 miles away in Hermiston.
Although Ukiah teachers don’t have to distance teach anymore, Principal Norma Barber explained that Batease was one of two Ukiah teachers based in Hermiston. Since the Hermiston area has been a COVID-19 hot spot — 1,449 total cases and counting — the district decided to keep them teaching from Hermiston as a precaution.
Science teacher Laura Orr has been trying to turn the school’s new normal into learning opportunities, using the ubiquitousness of hand sanitizer to explore the flammability of the gel.
“We’re making it work,” she said.
When not administrating, Barber pulls double duty as the school’s language arts teacher. A morning class with juniors and seniors featured the usual push-and-pull between a teacher trying to keep discussion on topic and students trying to veer off of it.
The teens intermixed time earnestly volunteering for a cleanup day at the town cemetery with a debate of the comparative merits of Ukiah and nearby Long Creek, its school either an athletic rival or ally depending on whether Ukiah can field enough students to form its own sports teams.
But when Barber began asking the students about their experiences with distance learning in the spring, the disdain was widespread.
Students felt like they took a step back in their education when they were forced to work from home, especially in math.
“My brain power died in March,” one student said.
One of the big sticking points was the lack of quality internet access. When Barber asked how many of them had good internet at home, only one out of the eight-student class raised her hand. Barber said the district spent last year trying to work around the problem by relying on paper packets and working with the state to allow small groups of students into the school.
In the secretary’s office, Kerr and Ted Orr, the science teacher’s husband and the chair of the Ukiah School Board, explained the challenge of offering online school without the internet infrastructure for students to access it.
Orr said Ukiah’s internet service is fine to work with, until more community members start to log on and service slows to a crawl. Some residents don’t get a cellphone signal, much less internet access.
Although Ukiah has returned its students to school, Barber said the school has to stay on top of an ever-changing rulebook and discovers new things each day that have to be modified to accommodate the new pandemic reality.
Students and staff are tolerating all the temperature checks, socially distant seating in the classroom and cafeteria, and near-constant mask wearing with the idea that one positive COVID-19 case in the school might send everyone back home.
As the rest of Umatilla County works to get its number of coronavirus cases low enough to offer in-person school again, Ted Orr said he hopes the county’s other communities can soon join Ukiah in welcoming their students back onto campus.