Reopening schools presents challenges, requires coming together for students

Tom Yahraes

Reopening schools amid a COVID pandemic has presented a multitude of challenges for school districts across our state and nation.

In Sweet Home, our goal is to reopen onsite learning to the maximum extent possible while following COVID-19 county and state guidelines to keep our students, staff, families and community as safe as possible. We want all students back in our buildings for face-to-face learning.

However, health and safety guidelines established by the Oregon Department of Education and Linn County Health authorities have set strict requirements we must meet to reopen. For example, requirements call for: to the maximum extent possible, all staff and students must be socially distanced in learning spaces and buses (6 feet in class and 3 feet on buses); students must be organized in small, stable groupings or “cohorts;” health screening and cohort recording processes must be performed for students entering buses, schools and rooms; strict protocols must be established and followed for any individuals who exhibit cold or flu-like symptoms; and strict cleaning protocols must be performed continuously for all spaces – buses, buildings and playground areas.

The Oregon Department of Education mandates that schools submit safety COVID plans or blueprints and supporting tracking documents to local school boards, the local County Health Authority, and the ODE. For school districts, because of these operational complexities and the time, space and resource requirements, the likelihood of all K-12 students served “normally,” face-to-face in buildings five days a week, is unlikely. 

Regionally, for instance,

 Lebanon has announced:

– Grades K-1 back for half-day schedule.

– Grades 2-12 back every other day on a modified A/B schedule.

Albany is attempting:

– K-2 back four days a week.

– Grades 3-12 back every other day on a modified schedule A/B schedule.

– Wednesdays to be reserved for attending to distance learning, at-risk students, and prepping for onsite and distance-learning formats.

The Why

The reasoning for the local and state requirements is simple: We want to keep our students, staff, and families safe. We know the virus spreads through social gatherings. Across the state and nation, schools represent the largest daily social gathering event for communities.

For example, in Oregon, in a typical year, over 600,000 students and nearly 30,000 educators travel to and from schools daily. In addition, many of our families have students and family members (grandparents included) who have underlying health conditions, which makes them more vulnerable to the severe effects of COVID.

School districts are tasked with reducing the more than 600,000 participants in K-12 education to small groupings or cohorts which comply with strict social distancing, screening, cleaning, hygiene, safety, and tracking protocols.

What the Sweet Home School District is Doing

In Sweet Home, we have released to our families our first version of our reopening safety plans. Variables such as classroom square footage, number of buses, length of routes and number of total employees are just some of the key operational elements that will dictate to what extent we can fully open onsite education to all students daily.

In Sweet Home, we have built the foundations for on-site and distance learning platforms. Our goal is to maximize our resources to best serve our students, families, and staff while also creating a teaching and learning system that can endure and adapt to the needs of our community during COVID. The tasks ahead are complex, but in Sweet Home, if we work as a team (district, parents, and school partners), we may be able to serve our students more robustly.

Confronting Transportation Issues

Under the current ODE guidelines, transporting students to and from school is a significant obstacle. ODE guidelines drastically reduce the number of students we can transport to school.

Under normal conditions, each bus picks up 60 to 70 students. Under the rigid guidelines of social distancing for buses, our capacity on buses is reduced to 15 to 22 students (if we can have siblings sit together).

We would have to run from six to eight routes all day long starting at 4 a.m. to get K-12 students to school, and then we would need to reverse the process to return students home.

In short, the number of routes and the added health screenings make it impossible for all K-12 students to return every day.

Our calculations show that, much like Lebanon and Albany, we can only bring back two grade levels on a full-time basis. The remaining grades would be on a modified every-other-day schedule with a minimum of two bus routes: early morning and late morning.

The solutions to get more students to school daily depend on these variables: the number of buses deployed, route efficiencies, examining the number of students we can have on a bus, reducing the number of students who need school district transportation and understanding the number of students who chose a distance only option.

Transportation Challenges

– More Bus Drivers Needed: We have the buses, but we need the drivers. We are advertising for bus drivers and providing a bonus stipend for new and current drivers for the coming year. 

In addition, bus drivers who work at least three hours per day receive a district-paid contribution toward their health insurance premium. Furthermore, all staff members receive PERS pension service credit if they work at least 600 hours in a calendar year. Paid training is provided and no experience is required.

We also need Suburban type drivers and bus assistants. If you are interested in joining our transportation team please call our transportation department at (541) 367-7116.

– Local Partners:  Linn Shuttle has volunteered to supply assistance to our overall transportation challenges with in-town routes to help families and students.

 Three Upcoming Parent Survey Topics

– Examining Number of Students on a Bus: We will be sending surveys soon to our parents who are using school transportation, asking their ability to drive their students to and from school.

– Understanding Willingness to Wear Face Coverings on a Bus: Current regulations make it possible to moderately increase the number of students on a bus while maintaining safety practices. As an example, if we can safely increase the capacity of a 70-passenger bus from 15 to 30 students because of a willingness to wear face coverings, we can help more students access daily onsite education. (As I write this, ODE has ruled districts cannot mandate the wearing of face-coverings.)

– Understanding Number of Parents Choosing Distance Learning Options: For general planning purposes, recently we performed a preliminary parent survey to understand the demand for a more robust distance-learning option. Currently, 20 percent to nearly 30 percent of our families surveyed have indicated they desire our new distance-learning option.

As our school community continues to monitor the effects of COVID, we will be reaching out to families to determine their exact learning preference.  Confirming the number of families who prefer distance-learning only will help us better assess our capacity to serve students who prefer onsite learning. Lower onsite enrollment allows us to meet social distance parameters on buses and in classrooms more efficiently.

Our New Distance Option: The Canvas Learning Platform

As a result of our early July parent survey, depending on the school their student attends, 20 to 30 percent of families surveyed prefer a distance-only option. The comments section showed a distance option helps families with their needs.

As an example, some students, parents, and/or grandparents who live together or help raise children have moderate to severe underlying health conditions, which COVID can seriously complicate and make life-threatening. Many families have been advised by their health providers to take specific health precautions during COVID.

We also know from our June parent survey, many families shared good overall reviews in how we adapted to distance-learning after the governor’s Stay at Home orders.

However, parents desired more student feedback, more support for student learning, and more technical support. Likewise, teachers surveyed expressed a desire for a more user-friendly and organized learning platform as well as more professional development. The Canvas learning platform answers these concerns.

Answering the Call

With the federal Cares Act dollars dedicated to school districts, we have purchased a user-friendly learning platform for students, families, and staff: Canvas.

Canvas is a premier learning platform to which many school districts around the nation are shifting, and it is also the learning platform many colleges and universities use (i.e., Oregon State University and University of Oregon).

This new distance-learning platform offers uniform pacing, core state learning standards, built-in timely feedback and assessments, face time (with Zoom), and recorded or live instruction components.

In addition, our distance platform will allow students and parents to connect to their assigned school, teacher, and peers. We will use Canvas for a portion of our onsite learning and entirely for distance learners, so all Sweet Home teachers and students will be connected to the same content.

Also, using Canvas for a portion of our onsite learning will allow for the safer electronic exchange of assignments (in place of paper). Our district-wide approach will allow for students and staff to quickly pivot and remain connected via Canvas if, due to COVID, the state should close school sites, or a student or class has to follow mandatory county stay-at-home protocols for 72 hours or up to 14 days.

The How: Build our Own Content in Canvas

Administrators and a K-12 educator team will arrive the first week of August to build our Sweet Home virtual Canvas learning platform with our own curriculum, assessments, and content – the content our staff and students are familiar with.

We are currently in the process of increasing school district bandwidth, access points, and server capacities. We have used Cares Act funding to purchase Chromebooks and tablets so every student will have a device.

For families with connectivity barriers at home, we are working with business partners and the city so that we may increase internet broadcasting. We are also working with internet providers so that parents may be able to increase their own internet capacities.

The Canvas learning platform also has offline functionality, so students can perform work without access to the internet. Assignments can be turned in by using a thumb drive or using an access point to download and upload data. More information will come as we put our Canvas learning system together this summer.

Distance Learning Beyond COVID

By using our own ingenuity, willingness to grow, and adapting to the challenging times, we will develop our own high-quality K-12 distance-learning option. We will come out ahead, with better programming and services for our students, teachers, and families. Through this challenge, we will grow; we will have our own online option for years to come!

Work in Progress

In Sweet Home, we want to understand and maximize key variables to optimize our ability to serve as many students as we can, safely, onsite. This is why we are not publishing a final schedule at this time. We want to make data-informed decisions while adhering to the COVID guidelines that will be released closer to our actual start date. This information is continually being updated.

Over the past five years I have served as superintendent, I have learned there is no community like Sweet Home when it comes to taking care of our kids.

We have a can-do attitude; we are resourceful; we are respectful of differences of opinion; we compromise; and, we drive forward as one. 

While there are long-range targets/tasks to plan for this year, there are critical immediate targets/tasks we will be asking for help with to get as many students as we can to their onsite classroom.

Please respond to our upcoming surveys and visit the district website,, for the most updated information regarding our reopening plans.

– Tom Yahraes is superintendent of Sweet Home School District.