Salem-Keizer schools not likely to open again, shift to ‘distance learning’ coming

Third-grade student Levi Black cuts out a shape during an art lesson at Salem Heights Elementary School on Oct. 18, 2019. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Students in Salem-Keizer are expected to return to class, though virtually and not in schoolhouses, after the state Monday night announced a major shift in strategy. The objective is to restart teaching while anticipating that school houses won’t reopen soon.

Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Education Department called on school superintendents, principals and parents to work together to engage in what he called “distance learning for all.”

In a lengthy statement, Gill outlined challenges facing teachers, parents and students to return to lessons that abruptly ended with a state-ordered closure of all schools in March.

The state, he said, had little choice.

He said there was “the strong possibility that our students may not come back through our school house doors this academic year.”

Across the state, more than 583,000 students, from the state’s largest district in Portland to the two-student school in Juntura, have been idled since schools closed March 16 by order of Gov. Kate Brown. They were to return April 1, but Brown subsequently extended her closure order to April 28. She hasn’t yet modified that date.

But Gill’s statement made clear such as an order is likely as the number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 continues to climb.

“We now have a moral imperative to meet the changing nature of the pandemic and evolve our approaching to serving our children,” Gill said.

Under the new plan, teachers will use online presentations to conduct class, but it won’t be easy.

“The vast majority of Oregon educators have not taught online and some districts have varying levels of experience, capacity and technology tools,” Gill said.

As a result, not all learning would be online, and instead school packets could be distributed to students “via individual and group calls.”

He said families with several children in school would face competition for online time.

“Imagine a family with a 7th grader and a 10th grader, each with six or seven different teachers and classes with one computer to share between the students. We must find ways for their classes to be scheduled in ways they can access all the content,” Gill wrote.

He noted that there is no broadband internet or even cell service in some areas of Oregon. 

He said a key to making the new program work is for parents of younger children to be active in the schooling.

“The success of distance education overwhelmingly relies on parents and adult family members to be active partners with teachers,” Gill wrote.

He said parents will need to help by providing daily structure and to serve as tutors. He acknowledged how hard that could be.

“In some homes older siblings must care for younger siblings and family members because parents and other caregivers must work,” he wrote.

He said the state and school districts will have to be attentive to homeless students – there were 22,215 homeless students last year – and to disabled students.

Gill said shifting to distance learning required a “formidable effort” by everyone.

“It will not and cannot happen overnight,” Gill wrote. “We need the grace and patience of our state’s leaders, our communities, our families and our educators.”

He nodded to what would be missed in the weeks ahead.

“We need to be clear headed regarding the experience our children will lose over the next two and a half months – proms, field trips, graduation and award ceremonies and simple classroom activities that shape lives.”

Gill didn’t address the status of school sports programs, which have been suspended since the school closure order.

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