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La Grande School District technology specialist Jeff Roberts examines one of the district’s network closets Thursday, July 30, at Willow School, part of the district’s computer technology infrastructure. It will receive heavy use from its students when school starts Aug. 31 because all of the district’s students will take their classes via distance education.

LA GRANDE — La Grande School District students will start the 2020-21 school year at home.

The district will launch the school year Monday, Aug. 31, with all students attending via its Comprehensive Distance Learning program. This means students will be taking classes online rather than at school because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Students will take classes online via the district’s Hybrid Model or its La Grande Learning Academy, which provides online education throughout the school year. Students enrolled in the Hybrid Model will receive online education via the district’s Comprehensive Distance Education Learning Program until schools can reopen for in-person instruction.

La Grande School District Superintendent George Mendoza said the district has spent the summer focused on developing an in-person instructional model that would allow a full return to school based on state social distancing and other rules. However, he said, the new metrics for schools that Gov. Kate Brown announced earlier this week takes in-person classes off the table.

“This guidance puts our plans for in-person learning on hold due to not meeting current indicator requirements from the Oregon School Health and Safety Metrics,” Mendoza said in a letter to parents, guardians and community members Thursday, July 30.

The superintendent said the hybrid model’s distance education will be more comprehensive than what the La Grande schools provided to students last spring. Mendoza said students will be able to interact more with their teachers in the new distance education model.

“Students will have a daily connection to ensure that they learn,” Mendoza said.

The superintendent said he wants to get students in the Hybrid Model back into school buildings soon.

“We miss our students, staff and families working together and seeing each other in person,” Mendoza said.

The superintendent said not being able to have in-person classes at the start of the school is discouraging because of the hard work staff did this summer in an attempt to achieve this goal.

“It is very frustrating,” Mendoza said.

The superintendent said he believes the earliest the school district will be able to provide on-site instruction would be Oct. 5. But by then, he said, COVID-19 rates may have fallen to the point that state metrics would make it possible for the school district to offer in-person instruction to students in kindergarten through third grade and special needs students at all grade levels.

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Observer file photo

A lone janitor works in this March photo at the end of an empty hall at La Grande High School. Those halls will remain empty a while longer as La Grande schools move to teaching online for fall term.

Other districts prep for online teaching

Other Union County school districts that have plans in place to reopen include Cove, set to reopen on Aug. 31. Cove Superintendent Earl Pettit said this district plans to offer on-site instruction to all students plus distance education for those who have issues which would prevent them from coming to school.

Pettit knows future changes in state directives could make it impossible to offer on site instruction.

“We fully expect things to change,” Pettit said. “We are in a wait-and-see mode.”

The Cove School District as a result has a distance education plan ready for all students if state rule changes make on-site instruction impossible.

“We can flip a switch and go fully online,” he said.

Pettit said he is worried the concentration on COViD-19 is keeping educators throughout the state from giving their full attention to student performance and the overall health of students. He said nationwide the number of students of high school age who are dying from suicide and drug overdoses is up dramatically. He said the increase alone is more than the number of teenagers who are dying from COVID-19. Pettit said this is why schools need to get students back in classrooms.

The ever-changing rules involving the virus and social distancing and education has prompted the Imbler School District to delay its opening a week to Monday, Aug. 31. Imbler Superintendent Angie Lakey-Campbell said this is in hopes that after an extra week the COVID-19 pandemic may subside to the point her school district has a better chance to offer on-site instruction.

Key elements of Imbler’s reopening plan include students attending school on-site Monday through Friday with half days on Fridays for students identified as needing additional support and on-line learning for all other students. Students in grades 7-12 would stay in cohorts each day.

While elementary classes will be fairly traditional, sixth- through 12th-grade classes will be a combination of traditional classes and online classes.

North Powder waits for changes

The North Powder School District’s plans for reopening are on hold as school officials wait to see if there are further rule changes. Superintendent Lance Dixon said he believes there is a chance the state may change its COVID-19 metrics to assist small school districts, such as North Powder, to open for on-site education.

One element of the state’s COVID-19 metrics that bothers Dixon is they apply to school districts based on the prevalence of the virus in counties and in Oregon overall. This means a high number of cases of the virus in other parts of their county can hurt a school district’s ability to reopen in a community with no or a low number of COVID-19 cases.

Dixon said this is not fair, stating that in Baker County, for example, the Baker School District’s number of COVD-19 cases should have no affect on the Huntington School District, which is 44 miles southeast of Baker City.

Dixon hopes North Powder can provide on-site education but realizes this may not be possible, which is why the district has a distance education program ready as a supplement or backup.

The North Powder superintendent said the state’s continuing changes regarding COVID-19 rules and education make it difficult to plan. Dixon said, though, it is important to maintain an optimistic attitude.

“You have to keep moving forward or you will give up,” Dixon said.

Dixon is not a fan of distance education, noting students taking online classes have a hard time getting to know their classmates and teachers.

“I didn’t get into education 30 years ago to teach students over a computer,” he said, “but that is the reality and what we have to do.”

He noted two of his children who attend the North Powder School District did not like taking distance education classes last spring, when all schools in the state began offering online learning programs. He said they want to get back to attending school in traditional fashion.

General assignment reporter

Beats include the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.

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