Forget Fall. Spring Is the New Back to School Season in Portland

A hard-won plan to reopen Oregon schools pleases few — and much of the in-person time remaining this year is likely to be filled with standardized testing.

Dave Bailey accompanies his son, Walter, on a socially distanced grid before Walter’s first day back to in-person school in April 2021. (Courthouse News photo / Karina Brown)

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Seven-year-old Walter Bailey wouldn’t say how he felt about his first day back in person. “He’s nervous,” explained his older brother Arthur, who Walter talks to most.

Their father, Dave Bailey, watched wistfully on Friday as Walter marched up the front steps of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary in a socially distanced line with about a dozen other kids in his class.

“This is the first time he’s been away from us in a year,” the elder Bailey said.

Arthur had his first day inside a third grade classroom on Monday. The extrovert of the family, Arthur said he was excited to see friends and teachers in person. His father worried about the absence of the purely social aspects of in-person learning, like lunch and recess.

Hollis, the youngest Bailey brother, has remained in day care except during a two-week stretch when the facility shut down due to an outbreak.

Dave is their primary caretaker while their mother, Amanda Bailey, works as a pediatrician. Dave used up all his leave time caring for a trio of boys suddenly at home this spring and summer. Leave extinguished, he made a choice that many parents have been backed into during the pandemic: he left his job as an IT manager for Multnomah County to provide child care to his kids and shepherd them through online schooling.

“There was just no way to do my job and take care of them at the same time,” Bailey said. “No way.”

Bailey says he understands that, just like families, school administrators and teachers were thrown into the reality of cancelling in-person classes last year, and scrambling to plan the opposite now. Still, it’s a lot to adjust to.

“So much of all this is, ‘Here’s what’s happening, deal with it,’” Bailey said. 

For the final weeks of the school year, students will be in their classrooms, learning directly from teachers in the same room — at least for a couple of hours per day, and assuming their parents agree to send them.  

It’s the payoff of a gamble by Oregon Governor Kate Brown. This past December, Brown made Oregon one of the first states to contradict federal guidelines by prioritizing vaccinating teachers ahead of people 65 and older. Brown said her decision was spurred by stories she said she’d heard of 11- and 12-year-old kids attempting suicide. However, a study published last Wednesday by the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that, although the number of U.S. deaths overall rose in 2020, the rate of death by suicide was the lowest since 2015.

Regardless, Brown’s plan was geared toward reopening schools for in-person learning by February. The goal was to open schools quickly, without spending months on planning a new schedule and bus routes, among other time-intensive administrative duties. In some parts of the state, that worked. In Portland, some administrators rushed to overhaul class schedules days before schools reopened.

Portland Public Schools didn’t start reopening until April 1, with the youngest students leading the way. After three-quarters of the year learning via computer from home, all will now have the option of adopting a hybrid approach, where they attend school in person for a couple of hours per day while still learning from home the rest of the time. Students who opt out can remain in distance mode full time.  

“Moving into a hybrid model does get us one step closer to a full reopening of school,” Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said at a recent special meeting of the Board of Education. “We believe, with everyone’s cooperation, we can return to campuses in a safe manner.”

The plan has already hit snags. Next week, students will be back in front of computers, even in their live classrooms. That’s because the federal government rejected Oregon’s request to skip standardized testing that could take one-quarter of their in-classroom time this year, according to an estimate form Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill.

The department plans to submit an amended request, hoping to reduce, but not eliminate, the number of tests students in grades 3 and older will have to take this year.  

Gill told his federal counterparts that any data from testing this year won’t provide reliable comparisons between schools and districts or accurately assess the quality of instruction, during a time when students across the don’t have uniform internet access and are struggling with stress, trauma and overwhelm from the Covid-19 pandemic, online learning and fallout from 2020’s raging wildfires.

“We at ODE remain committed to the core values and stance outlined in our strategic waiver — this is not the year or the moment for summative assessment,” Gill wrote in an announcement of the amended waiver request. “In addition, incomplete, unreliable, and/or inaccurate information could lead to damaging and inappropriate instructional decisions in 2021 and beyond, especially for our children and communities of color, including Indigenous communities.”

Administrators promised that schools will have HEPA air purifiers in every instructional room, a nurse in every school, rapid testing available for all students and staff with symptoms and contact tracing and isolation protocols.

The agreement took months to negotiate and plan, and to muddle through contentious negotiations between the school district and the teachers’ union. Even at the meeting where it was ratified, board members fought over the specifics, with some advocating a much wider reopening, and others saying they only reluctantly agreed to having students back in schools part time.

Portland Association of Teachers director Elizabeth Thiel said the upheaval opened the door for long-needed changes, but the opportunity was wasted by rushing back to in-person learning.

“Imagine if we could use all the energy and time and persistence that we’ve used to plan the next eight weeks of instruction — imagine if that same amount of energy is invested in advocating for the systemic changes and ongoing funding that we need to give our students the engaging, hands-on, relevant curriculum that they deserve, the individualized support, the access to opportunities and all of the social-emotional supports that are so crucial,” Thiel said at a March 18 school board meeting.

Still, the governor’s plan is being realized this week, even if it arrives in the midst of tightly managed chaos. Gov. Brown addressed students directly in a Facebook live event days before in-person instruction was set to begin.

“You have faced challenges this year that no generation has ever experienced,” Brown told students.

She added that returning students might have something new to look forward to: summer school. Brown worked with state legislators to introduce a $250 million package to fund child care and summer learning and enrichment programs, with the goal to help students “learn, heal and have fun.”

That would be a big help for families struggling to find child care in the wake of widespread closures of summer camps and other low-cost programs that keep kids busy between school years. Dave Bailey hopes it might let him get back to work.

“Personally, I’m just happy they are trying something, even if this is all just a dry run for next year,” Bailey said.

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