UNION COUNTY — The jury is still out, but there is reason for optimism.

This is the belief a number of local public school leaders have with regard to the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the education of their students. The pandemic forced the state to close schools in March 2020 through the end of the 2019-20 school year to in-person instruction, allowing them to teach classes only online.

Since the start of the 2020-21 school year, the Cove, Elgin, Imbler, North Powder and Union school districts have been offering in-person instruction to all students each day for much of the school year. The La Grande School District has had a harder time getting to the point where it could offer in-person instruction to all students due to how state metrics apply to larger school districts.

La Grande elementary students have been receiving in-person instruction for much of the school year — but students in grades seven to 12 had to take all of their classes online until early 2021, and it was not until early April that all of these students were allowed to be on campus every school day.

La Grande Middle School Principal Kyle McKinney said as more in-person instruction has been provided, attendance has increased at his school and that the number of students who are failing classes is down. He believes this is indicative of how much better in-person instruction is for most students compared to that provided online.

The principal noted though that because teachers have not been able to meet with students in-person as much as they would in a normal school year, they have not been able to cover as much material. This means they have had to focus more on major curriculum concepts to prepare students to be able to succeed at their next grade level in the 2021-22 school year.

McKinney said that through the efforts of teachers, students will eventually catch up in terms of the content they have been taught, but it could take a year or more to accomplish this.

“I wish I had a crystal ball,” said McKinney, who will retire at the end of June.

InterMountain Education School District Superintendent Mark Mulvihill, like McKinney, said the pandemic has shown many students fare much better with in-person instruction as opposed to online education. Mulvihill noted throughout the school districts served by the IMESD, educators are finding that for most students in-person instruction is more effective. Mulvihill said attendance improves and students begin earning better grades.

One reason is that some students are at distinct disadvantages when it comes to learning online. Mulvihill noted some students do not have access to high-speed internet because of where they live. Also, many children are from single-parent families or those in which both parents work full time and the students may not get the help they need while doing online classwork at home.

“It is no surprise that kids need to be in school to get a good education,” said Mulvihill, whose ESD district serves Union County’s six school districts plus many more in Umatilla, Morrow and Baker counties.

Union School District Superintendent Carter Wells believes his students are doing well since they have been receiving in-person instruction each day for most of the 2020-21 school year.

Unfortunately a number of Union students who were in high school when the pandemic hit in March 2020 are still feeling the impact of the loss of in-person instructional time.

Wells said some students did not adjust well to online only instruction, which reduced the number of credits they earned last spring. The superintendent noted that high school students will have to make up for the loss of these credits in order to graduate on time.

“It will be difficult,” he said.

North Powder School District Superintendent Lance Dixon believes his students are emerging from the pandemic in solid shape academically.

“I do not think it has had a lot of impact,” said Dixon, whose district has offered in-person instruction for much of the 2020-21 school year.

He noted that the number of students failing classes is less than 2%, which is about what the school district’s average has been.

Dixon noted that one thing that has helped students this spring is the return of high school athletic competition in all sports, one overseen by the Oregon School Activities Association. The superintendent said this has given high schoolers an outlet for pent-up energy and frustration and helped many students maintain their focus on their classes.

“If they had not brought back sports when they did, there would have been a lot more problems,” he said. “We may have had more students take jobs. They would have still been enrolled but not engaged.”

La Grande High School Principal Brett Baxter said the majority of his school’s students have adjusted well to the challenges they have faced.

“Our students are strong and resilient,” he said.

Baxter agrees that the return of sports this spring has given students a boost. This occurred after there were fall sports practices.

“There had been a long drought of outside activities. It was very timely,” he said.

Cove School District Superintendent Earl Pettit said he has not detected drop off in academic performance. He believes that any loss caused by the move to online learning in the spring of 2020 has been erased.

Pettit, whose smaller school district has been able to offer in-person education this year, said, “We have caught up over the past school year.”

Dick Mason is a reporter with The Observer primarily covering 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.

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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