UMATILLA COUNTY — When the Athena-Weston School District learned that Umatilla County’s first case of coronavirus had spent time at the Weston Middle School gym right before his diagnosis, district officials temporarily closed the gym for cleaning without interrupting classes. Nearly every other school district in the region followed suit.
Less than two weeks — and 30 positive COVID-19 tests later — Gov. Kate Brown ordered every school in the state closed through the end of March.
Flanked by the district superintendents for Portland and Hillsboro at a Friday teleconference, Brown admitted that the closures would do little to stop the spread of the virus, but the statewide closure was needed to aid districts that were facing severe staffing shortages.
“It has become very clear that the demands of this crisis were quickly pushing our schools to their breaking point,” she said in an opening statement. “Several school districts told me that they were becoming functionally unable to operate.”
Colt Gill, the state’s deputy superintendent of public instruction, said districts across the state would be expected to use the down time to create plans that address how schools would operate when they reopen April 1, including the potential for staff and supply shortages.
More than 200 miles away from Salem, even administrators are trying to figure out how to navigate uncharted territory.
Hermiston School District held an emergency school board meeting on Friday evening to decide what to do about spring break, deadlocking 3-all before agreeing to revisit the decision at noon Tuesday when they could have more information.
“In a situation like this there is no easy answer,” Superintendent Tricia Mooney said when the board asked for her recommendation.
Because Hermiston plays in the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, the district had planned to have spring break from April 6-10, along with making April 2-3 parent conference days. The board discussed three options Friday night — count the current closure as spring break, have students return to school April 1-3 and then hold spring break, or keep the schools closed from now until April 13.
On one side, board members Josh Goller, Karen Sherman and Brent Pitney were concerned that canceling spring break would cause families to cancel hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of plans, only for the governor to turn around and announce a longer closure that would have allowed them to travel after all. They pointed out that, so far, Oregon has followed Washington’s lead on COVID-19 precautions, and Washington announced Friday that school will be canceled through April 24.
“If we make this decision tonight, people are going to change their plans tonight,” Pitney said.
On the other side, Mark Golomski, Ginny Holtus and Bryan Medelez were worried about the economic impact to families trying to find child care solutions for four weeks if they didn’t have to. They also pointed to the learning disruptions for students.
Parents and district staff were also split in the views they shared. One parent said he had already pulled his children out of school, and urged the district to extend the closure, perhaps even end the school year now, to protect the health and safety of students. On the other side, district employee Briana Cortaberria pointed out that school staff were being meticulous in their cleaning.
“If they’re somewhere else, we can’t say that location will be any cleaner,” she said. “They might be at the store, or playing with their friends down the street.”
After a vote to cancel spring break ended in another tie, board members voted to meet again on Tuesday in the hopes they would have more clarity.
Several Hermiston High School students walking home from school Friday said they were surprised by the cancelation, and that they thought it was an overreaction.
Some were excited to spend time hanging out with their friends, while others said they were worried they would get bored, or that the closure would negatively impact things like graduation.
“It’s funny how people were joking about it, and now that the school is closing people are taking it seriously,” junior Garret Brinkley said.
Districts will figure ways to deliver meals to students
In his 33 years in education, InterMountain Education Service District Superintendent Mark Mulvihill said he’s never seen anything like the coronavirus closures.
“I haven’t seen anything that changes and is so unknown. If you close school for ice, you do it. Sometimes you’re right, sometimes you’re wrong. We’ve had outbreaks of flu, or something like that. But it’s like a one-time (thing) and it’s isolated. This is an international crisis.”
Mulvihill said districts will spend the extended break figuring out ways to deliver meals to the thousands of students on free or reduced lunch in the region.
Without students and teachers, most schools will continue to operate with skeleton crews, likely comprised of superintendents, principals, secretaries and custodians.
Addressing compensation and insurance issues for the staff who won’t keep going to school is another priority, Mulvihill said, especially considering that most staff are a part of unions with contracts dictated by collective bargaining agreements.
Pendleton Superintendent Chris Fritsch echoed many of Mulvihill’s thoughts, but said his district was in a very different situation than some of the school systems the governor was talking about.
“That is one of those areas where you can say there’s a distinct difference between the attitude on the west side of the Cascades and the attitude on the east side. … We weren’t getting that pushback from employees,” he said.
Fritsch said delivering food to Pendleton students will be similar to the district’s summer meal program: “grab-and-go” breakfast and lunches will be available at the Pendleton Early Learning Center and Washington Elementary School while the district will send its food truck to the recreation center on the Umatilla Indian Reservation to deliver meals to tribal students.
Fritsch also said teachers will continue to be paid during the break because their union contract already requires pay for canceled school days. How classified employees who aren’t required to report to work, like instructional assistants, will be compensated is more of an open question, Fritsch said, and he will meet with union representatives to figure that issue out.
While many parents are now without daytime child care, Fritsch said he didn’t think Pendleton schools would become a venue for day care. He reasoned that the governor ordered the closures to keep children out of schools, and opening a temporary day care would just recreate the school setting.
Gill, the state education official, said districts will also have to plan for school closures that extend past March. The state would encourage schools to make up days throughout the year and even extend the school year, but the department of education would also make allowances for districts that fall short.
Given how often Oregon has followed Washington state’s lead when it comes to coronavirus response, Fritsch said he wouldn’t be surprised if Oregon did so again for school closures.
Shortly after Brown’s announcement, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said his state’s schools would be closed through April 24.
While Weston was prominently involved in the county’s first coronavirus case, Athena-Weston Superintendent Laure Quaresma did not respond to requests for comment.
As Friday progressed, superintendents throughout the region shared their plans for the break.
Umatilla to provide meals for students to pick up
Umatilla School District Superintendent Heidi Sipe said she had had an inkling that a school closure might be coming, but she wasn’t expecting it to come right after she got home from a school board meeting to discuss plans for COVID-19 on Thursday night.
Due to its high number of economically disadvantaged students, the district offers free breakfast and lunch to all students, and free dinner to all who stay for the district’s after school STEM program. During the closure, Sipe said the district will not only provide free meals for students to pick up from a meal site, but adults can get breakfast for $1 and lunch and dinner for $2.
“We know a lot of families will be paying for day care they weren’t expecting and may have additional financial strain, especially if they are missing hours of work,” she said.
The district is also partnering with the city of Umatilla to deliver meals to senior citizens for $5 per day if they request it, so that they don’t have to put themselves at risk of exposure by going to a grocery store or restaurant.
Meal locations are:
- McNary Heights Elementary: Breakfast 8-9 a.m., lunch 11 a.m. to noon, dinner 5-6 p.m.
- Umatilla High School: Breakfast 8:30-9:30 a.m. and lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
- Kiwanis Park: Lunch 12:30-1:30 p.m.
- Marina Park: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
- Triangle Park: Lunch 10:30 a.m. to 11:15 a.m.
Echo discusses contingency plans
Echo School District Superintendent Raymon Smith said the district is complying with the governor’s mandate, “whether we agree with it or not.”
The district had an emergency meeting on Thursday night to discuss contingency plans for possible closures, and after the governor’s announcement later that night, Smith said the school board will have further discussions during Monday’s regularly scheduled board meeting. However, he said the situation is so fluid right now that they will probably hold off on making a final decision on what the rest of the school calendar will look like.
“We will plan and put things on paper as far as options, depending on where things go, but I don’t think it’s the time to make a permanent plan,” he said.
During the closure, the district will offer meals for students to pick up from 8-9 a.m. and 11 a.m. to noon at Echo School.
Smith said there are still questions about how the closure will affect things like state testing, but “the least of my concerns right now is state testing.”
“The physical and mental health of our students is more of a concern to us,” he said. “We can figure out the learning piece later.”
He encouraged anyone with questions to send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org instead of trying to call during the closure when staff won’t be around to answer phones.
Stanfield school facilities unavailable
Stanfield School District Superintendent Beth Burton said in an email that the district will have lunch for students to pick up between 11 a.m. and noon on March 16-19 and March 30-31.
Athletic practices and games are suspended until April 1, and no community groups will be able to use school facilities until April 13.
Morrow County discussing ‘what-if scenarios’
Morrow County School District Superintendent Dirk Dirksen said school, sports and all use of school facilities is canceled in compliance with the state directive.
He said as people wonder whether the closure really will be for only two weeks, the school board and staff will definitely be discussing “a lot of what-if scenarios.”
Of particularly concern for small rural districts, he said, is what happens if the state decides to direct schools to switch to remote, online learning for the duration of the school year. Many students don’t have internet access at home, he said.
“It’s not just getting students devices, you also have to address internet equity,” he said.
Meals served by the school district for students during the closure are:
- Sam Boardman Elementary School, 9 a.m. to noon
- Meal drop off at Wilson trailer park 9-9:15 a.m.
- Drop off at Boardman Library 9:20-9:35 a.m.
- Drop off at Riverside Jr/Sr High School 9:40-10 a.m.
- A.C. Houghton Elementary School 9 a.m. to noon
- Drop off at Irrigon Library, 9-9:15 a.m.
- Irrigon Elementary School, 9:20-9:40 a.m.
- Heppner High School 9 a.m. to noon
- Drop off at City Park 9:20-9:35 a.m.
- Drop off at Heppner Elementary School 9:40-10:00 a.m.