‘Can-do’ attitude in place as school progresses, board told

Sean C. Morgan

Supt. Tom Yahraes and School District staff members outlined how the Sweet Home School District has responded to the closure of schools this year as part of the effort to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The School Board held its regular meeting Monday night using Zoom, a videoconferencing software application.

“Everybody is approaching this with a can-do attitude,” said certified union president Elizbaeth Hunt. People are adjusting to the changes, “and we’re just doing our best.”

Teachers are working with students in a variety of ways, connecting through Google classrooms and with pencil-and-paper packets, collected weekly by parents from the schools or delivered by mail.

“We’ve had to change most of our operations,” Yahraes told the board because schools have been closed through the end of the year. Now teachers and students are mostly working from home.

“The staff, all ranks, have been incredible working under these extraordinary times and extraordinary conditions,” Yahraes said. “I’m very impressed with our staff.”

Since the district started providing them at Foster and Sweet Home High School on March 16, the district has provided 7,252 meals, Yahraes said. The first day, the district provided 62 meals at Foster and 100 at the high school.

Last week, the district provided 134 meals at Foster and 314 at the high school in a single day, Yahraes said. The first week, the district provided 1,286 meals, and last week it provided more than 2,400.

“That crew (nutrition services) has done an amazing job,” Yahraes said.

With instruction, “we moved from supplemental learning a couple of weeks ago to distance learning for all,” Yahraes said, with a goal of reaching and engaging 100 percent of students and families.

“Our teachers have been amazing,” said Chief Academic Officer Rachel Stucky. “Our classified have been amazing about stepping up.”

Distance learning is not just online learning, she told the board. “It means learning when a teacher and a student are in different locations.”

Under the state’s guidance, schools are directed to ensure equity among student, Stucky said, regardless of whether families have laptops or use paper and pencil.

“One cannot be different from the other,” she said, noting that many parents have requested paper packets for different reasons.

The distance learning program includes everything from phone calls, to videoconferencing and paper packets. Each teacher creates weekly learning instruction plans and schedules for their students, and they are required to maintain office hours where students and parents can reach them.

Their goal is to ensure that students are learning what they would have, Stucky said, and the teachers are targeting instruction so that they will be ready for the next grade when they return in September.

During this time, students are not being formally graded, but teachers are providing feedback to students, Yahraes said. Letter grades would create some equity issues. At the high school level, classes are being listed as passed or incomplete.

The district has made contact with most families, Yahraes said. At Foster, 285 out of 338 families have received a packet or accessed online contact, and the families of 308 families have responded to contact.

At Hawthorne, buses have delivered 23 packets. Twenty-four have been mailed, while parents have picked up 289 and 19 students are exclusively working online.

At Holley, 144 out of 153 students have been reached, and 142 have completed assignments.

Oak Heights distributed 215 packets at the school and mailed 50 packets. The school has contacted 257 families and is attempting to contact eight families.

Junior high enrollment is 352. Two hundred nine parents submitted responses to the parent readiness survey, and 320 students and 531 parents received messages through the Remind app last week. The school has left 38 follow-up voicemails for parents of students teachers have been unable to contact.

The school has 23 active online Google classrooms, and 150 Chromebooks are cleaned and ready for deployment next week.

At the high school, just four students out of 512 have never responded to any attempt to reach them. All but 38 have picked up packets or joined a Google classroom.

Student Services Director Thad Holub said special education teachers continue to follow individualized education plans, and they’ve contacted 800 families across the district.

In budgeting, Business Manager Kevin Strong told the board that the state has education stability funds that may be drawn down to help with revenue shortfalls. Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security funds include school funding, and the district has less outstanding debt that any time in the past 17 years.

Interest income is falling, he said. As the budget was being prepared last year, the district was earning 2.75 percent interest, but that rate has fallen to 1.75 percent.

The district also anticipates less income from other sources, he said. For example, Little Promises, which is housed at the district’s former Pleasant Valley School, has requested assistance on rent. The district is not receiving pool admission fees, and fire school has been canceled.

State timber revenue could also decline as mills announce shutdowns, Strong said. Nutrition services will provide less revenue since the district is serving fewer meals than if school were in session.

The district will continue to pay its employees, following the direction in Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order, Strong said, but the district does expect to save money in areas like bus fuel and electricity. At the same time, the print shop is likely to have higher expenses.

Strong said he expects a drastic reduction in the income tax revenue that funds education, with businesses laying off significant numbers of employees. State lottery revenue has also fallen sharply.

Some businesses will recover faster than others when restrictions are lifted, Strong told the board, quoting Josh Lehner with the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis. However, the “initial bounce back likely takes the economy from near-depression level readings up to something resembling a severe or bad recession;” and until the health situation is under control, the economic recovery will be slow to moderate.

Strong said he expects to see further reductions in interest rates as well.

April 8, Brown told School Districts that had been ramping up to hire more employees with Student Success Act funding to offer enhanced services to “put those plans on ice.”

Among the local SSA-funded programs were an elementary music program and behavioral support.

The programs would be funded by a corporate activities tax approved by the legislature last year.

Strong said costs will be higher next year. The district has already negotiated a wage and benefit increase for classified employees for next school year. Property and liability insurance is expected to increase by 17 percent.

With spouses laid off from work, Strong also expects staff members to opt into health insurance coverage.

“We are already preparing to make some service reductions,” Strong said. “For example, the 2020-21 budget will not include a school ‘key needs’ budget. We will also look for other areas where we can cut costs.”

Present at the meeting were Joe Kennedy, Jim Gourley, Jason Van Eck, Chanz Keeney, Mike Reynolds, Chairman Jason Redick, Angela Clegg, Debra Brown and Jenny Daniels.

In other business, the board:

– Approved the resignation of Stephani Catt Severns, third-grade teacher at Hawthorne. She worked for the district for three years.

– Accepted the donation of 11 Dell OptiPlex 3020 computers from Ivan Wolthuis.

– Appointed Colton Emmert to the Budget Committee, which is scheduled to meet beginning next month by Zoom.