As the Seaside School District continues to wrestle with the decision of how and when to reopen schools to in-person instruction, early learners are being given top priority for a return to campus.

“Right now, if case counts don’t continue to rise, we could begin hybrid instruction with some of our elementary students,” Superintendent Susan Penrod said during a school board meeting last week.

The goal is to start bringing kindergarten and first-graders back on-site as early as Feb. 15, but the school district is waiting to evaluate Clatsop County’s positive COVID-19 cases come Feb. 1.

At the beginning of the year, the state returned the decision for operating schools in-person to the local level, putting the onus on school boards and superintendents to wade through the pros and cons, as well as feedback from community members. The metrics that once were requirements became guidelines instead.

“We have had, as we all know, a lot of change this year,” Penrod said. “I am very thankful to our leadership team for their flexibility and our staff for their flexibility as well and to our parents and our students.”

Even in the hours leading up to the board meeting, Penrod was involved in a meeting with state officials and other administrators to discuss new advisory metrics in regards to case counts.

Before, school districts in the orange high-risk level — which includes the Seaside School District — had to continue comprehensive distance learning while county case counts were at 200 or more per 100,000. As of Jan. 19, that figure was increased. Districts can implement careful, prioritized phasing-in for students even with case counts of 200 to 350 per 100,000. If case counts exceed 350 per 100,000, districts are recommended to stick with distance learning.

“This is an advised guide,” Penrod said. “The superintendent and school board members can make a decision of their choice that works best for their community.”

In-person instruction

Clatsop County has hovered around 250 cases per 100,000 for most of December and January. In December, the board decided to wait until Feb. 1 to evaluate the situation and determine whether the district could start phasing-in elementary students by Feb. 15. They are committed to giving teachers, staff and community members a definitive two-week notice before the transition.

In the next couple weeks, school administrators plan to work with teacher leader teams to develop the best model to deliver hybrid instruction to students. The goal is to provide an a.m. and p.m. model for elementary students so they are in school four days per week. That requires addressing challenges with transportation and meal delivery. School administrators also must figure out the best method for delivering instruction to students who opt to stay in distance learning, even when permitted back on campus.

“We want to meet the needs of all our families,” Penrod said. “That is definitely a discussion in progress.”

When students do return, certain health and safety protocols will continue to be required, not only advised. These include providing 35 square feet of space per student; enforcing 6-feet physical distancing; prescreening individuals before they enter school; and making face coverings a requirement, except during staggered lunch times and for individuals who are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Staff and teachers cannot eat at the same time as students or together in common areas. The district can’t allow use of the gym until Clatsop County moves down from the extreme-risk category.

Differing opinions

During the meeting, Penrod and the school board members addressed the challenge of weighing the varying needs and opinions of teachers, parents, students and other stakeholders.

“Many different people have many different needs,” Penrod said. “It’s our job as the board, and my job as the superintendent, to look at as many different perspectives as we can.”

Comments made during the meeting raised concerns about the declining mental health of students — particularly high schoolers — who remain in distance learning. One person asked why the district is being reactive instead of proactive in offering in-person instruction and on-site extracurriculars at the allowable level.

Board president Mark Truax pointed out the district must follow the regulations and guidance of the state, as well as the limitation on gathering sizes being enforced countywide, not just on schools.

“It’s a moving target,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to try and get the schools open as best we can.”

Meanwhile, a survey of Seaside teachers revealed a majority of them are uncomfortable with in-person instruction, especially until they have received the vaccination. Chuck Albright, a Seaside teacher and president of the Seaside Education Association, said that “even with a changing goalpost, the data is not great.”

“We are dealing with the spike in the pandemic right now,” he said. “Teachers do not feel comfortable starting without that vaccine.”

Additionally, Penrod said, the district faces insurance liability issues if they decide to bring students back on campus with case counts at 350 or more per 100,000.

“What that liability is, we’re not quite sure yet,” she said. “If we are following all of our safety protocols, if we’re following our hybrid plans, of course we lower our risk. But yes, there is some risk, which is completely out of our control.”

Referencing a quote by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, she said, “The virus sets the timeline; we don’t set the timeline.”

“We are working in an area we haven’t worked in before,” she added. “We will do our best to be as creative as possible while still following the health and safety protocols.”

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