School return sees boost in enrollment

Benny Westcott

Sweet Home School District saw a jump in enrollment numbers at the beginning of this year, from 2,101 students on Dec. 18 to 2,131 students on Jan. 29.

“Due to the return of in-person learning, we saw people coming back,” said Supt. Tom Yahraes.

Yahraes is optimistic that the enrollment numbers will continue to swell and will approach the district’s former enrollment at this time of year. And he said he and his colleagues were predicting this uptick in enrollment.

“We anticipated that when we returned to in-person, folks would be inclined to want their kids back in school,” Yahraes said.

Overall, the district has lost 23 students from Sept. 25, 2020, according to numbers presented to the School Board Monday evening, but the greatest variance in enrollment numbers at any one school was at Hawthorne, which declined from 303 to 293.

Yahres said that district enrollment typically declines, starting in October, through the end of the school year, so the boost is actually unusual.

“We saw people coming back. We’ve gotten phone calls from people saying that ‘we’ve been homeschooling and we would like to enroll back into the system.”

He said district officials are optimistic that enrollment will continue to climb to what it would typically be toward the end of the school year.

Kindergarteners through third-graders across the district returned to in-person learning last week. The week of Feb. 15 will see grades 4-6 return to in-person learning, and grades 7-12 going through orientation days to learn protocols for attending classes during the pandemic.

Yahraes said that regionally, the Sweet Home School District is one of only a few schools that are opening up to in-person learning at this point.

He said he conducted a tour of all the K-3 schools and classes in the school district and was pleased with how they were operating.

“I’m happy to report that things are going really well,” Yahraes said. “It’s orderly. Kids are wearing masks, there’s social distance. There’s education going on in every class that’s engaging. I’m proud of the staff. I’m proud of the students and the families.”

Though some students experienced the normal first-day anxiety Monday, Feb. 1, most seemed excited to be back in a brick-and-mortar school building after spending nearly a year online.

“I’m very happy to go back to schools,” volunteered Toryn Johnson, 8, a second-grader who was waiting to enter the afternoon session at Oak Heights School on the first day. “It’s really hard to do online school at home,” he added as other children standing nearby murmured their assent.

Toryn noted that he was at Oak Heights for the first time.

“I went to Foster last year,” he added. “It was a good school.”

Yahraes noted that the state gave local decision-making to school districts in January.

“Sweet Home District decided that it was time to bring our students back. And it’s the right decision.

“Science is saying that schools, when they are using the proper protocols, are not the source of spread of COVID,” Yahraes said. “In fact, schools can be a mitigating factor in communities when it comes to the spread of COVID. If somebody is not feeling well we immediately identify that person, initiate contact tracing and quarantine, and that family or employee gets informed. So we can slow down the spread of COVID.”

He told School Board members at their meeting Monday, Feb. 8, that the district is taking a number of precautions to prevent the spread of COVID.

Desks and door handles will be sanitized between classes. There will be no eating on campus. If a student needs a “mask break,” those will be taken outside the classroom.

The high school will not be taking any paper assignments.

Students will be asked to sanitize their hands on the way out of the classroom.

Nurses will be prepared to start conducting COVID tests on March 1.

He said surveys indicate that about 70% of the district’s staff have been vaccinated.

Getting back to school has been a stated priority for Yahraes since the beginning of the school year, when Sweet Home just missed a window of opportunity to bring students back, thanks to local COVID metrics and state edicts.

He said that county, state and national studies have shown that depression, trauma and neglect are up in some cases, and in some instances suicide is up among teenage students.

Yahraes also said that the fact that vaccines are becoming more available was a factor in the district’s decision to reopen schools.

“Our kids have been suffering in their academics, he said. “Socially, emotionally, and physically this has been a detrimental time-frame for them.

“Their dreams have been dashed in many cases, K through 12. We need to be the voice for them. We’re here for kids, and we’re going on a year now that these kids have been prevented from having that in-person instruction that we know is superior.”