District working to implement state rules for schools, superintendent says

By Scott Swanson

Lebanon Local

School in Lebanon this fall will look a lot different for just about everyone, Supt. Bo Yates told School Board members Thursday, June 25, at their monthly meeting.

Board members and staff extensively discussed how new state guidelines, released earlier this month by the Oregon Department of Education for how schools should operate in the fall amid COVID-19, will affect Lebanon.

Yates said the district is working on a plan for the fall that will be submitted for approval by the state and the county Health Department.

The new rules will require proper social distancing for each student, plenty of sanitization and face coverings, and changes in how students and teachers spend time together.

The first three parts of the district’s plan, Yates said, focus on health and safety “before it ever gets to education,” he said.

He said “operational issues” facing the district include class sizes, recess, food service, transportation and scheduling changes that will aim to minimize the interaction of students and others. Students will likely be assigned to “pods” that will be much smaller than normal class sizes, with teachers, particularly at the middle- and high school levels, moving to groups of students rather than vice versa.

“We’re dealing with some very tight restrictions in regards to the number of kids we can have in any one place, being able to track those kids from the time they leave their house till they get on the bus, till they get off the bus, which entry they come in, which door, sequestering them for lunch – doing all those things.”

He noted that the district has been feeding more than 1,500 kids this summer, which, he said, is “a No. 1 priority.”

“There are a lot of operational issues, not just what we are going to teach kids,” he said.

Yates said school in the fall will likely involve a combination of distance learning, with some students attending class on Mondays and Tuesdays and the rest on Thursdays and Fridays, with Wednesdays being distance learning days for everyone. There will be no physical education classes and classes will likely be 80 minutes long rather than 50, to minimize movement and interaction.

“It will be a blended model,” he said. “The kids will be there part of the time, and online part of the time.”

Buses will be running all day long, which means overtime pay for drivers, “a lot” of whom are in the “at risk category,” he said.

Teachers are working on curriculum for the first six to nine weeks, establishing learning targets and figuring out what supports will be needed for students, he said.

“We’re going to be a lot more thoughtful in designing what kids are doing at home and how we’re doing it,” Yates said.

He and board members agreed that students in younger grades may need more classroom time and that some students may prefer distance learning over classroom time, or vice versa.

Yates acknowledged that some students will need more instruction time than other.

Oliver noted that he’s heard from “people in both camps: How do we accommodate those who don’t want their child in a classroom at all?”

“Elementary students, what they need is retention,” said Board Member Mike Martin. “They need to be there every day.”

“That’s not even an option,” Yates responded. “Due to transportation requirements, we can’t even do it with half the kids.”

He used the word “frustrating” several times in describing the situation the district is facing.

“It’s going to take a common-sense approach,” he said. “We may not be able to do what they ask us to do, but we’ll do the next best thing. There’s a certain level of frustration, but we’re working through those things. We need to get a plan that’s flexible enough to meet kids’ needs.”

Board Member Tammy Schilling suggested that schools emphasize “personal responsibility” in students following social distancing and other rules, a “carrot-and-stick method. If you don’t do this, you can’t be here.”

“I know a lot of these kids,” she said. “I know they can follow rules.”

Yates responded that although that suggestion sounds “reasonable,” the ODE has decreed that students cannot be disciplined for violating social distancing rules.

“I don’t see that as punishment,” Schilling said. “It’s a venue issue. It’s here or it’s here.”

Martin said the district should focus on a “really strong preventative education program,” suggesting that local healthcare professionals could help set that up.

“That’s the No. 1 place to start,” he said. “It’s really all we have to get back to any sense of normality for all of us. Otherwise, we’re just kind of bumping into each other. We need to put the anchor down and that’s where we start.”

Yates said that staff “may be treading water for a while” in getting things organized for fall. “We’re trying to figure out the best thing we can do.”

Assistant Supt. Jennifer Meckley said the district will have “multiple layers of plans” because “the rules are going to change.”

“It feels like we are playing chess,” Yates said. “We were playing checkers before.”

The board also discussed some of the challenges students and teachers have faced with the abrupt plunge into distance learning they have experienced over the past three months, particularly the 35 percent of high school sophomores who are behind in the credits necessary to graduate.

Yates said the district has “tried to use the model where we have a counselor that follows those kids on a continual basis, so there’s that continual asking the kids what they need, being able to take a look at the 35 percent of the kids, being able to understand that this is the type of support or program that we need.

“We’re just not at that point yet.”

Schilling said that, from her own perspective as a parent, “if you’re just relying on a counselor, that’s not going to do it.”

Working with a counselor to address issues “stalled” with her daughter, she said. “They’re either too busy or the infrastructure’s not there for them to do what we want them to do.”

“I agree,” Yates responded. “We’re resource-deprived.”

“I don’t know if we need accountability, but just support and some thoughtfulness behind what we are doing.

Martin asked whether students who are struggling are involved in extracurricular activities such as sports or music.

Yates said students involved in sports have to maintain a high enough GPA to participate.

Schilling said the district has an opportunity to “experiment” in the current situation it finds itself.

“We are in an era where we’re going to need to be creative,” she said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to fix it for us. What we have is a time to experiment and we’re relying on the state of Oregon to tell us exactly what that experiment is going to look like. So we’re experimenting on our group of students right now and I think, locally, we can do better. I’d like to do better. I don’t want to leave any of those kids behind.”

Yates said he wants the district to be “as intentional as possible in what we’re doing.”

He said he’s open to idea and noted the district has “pretty good” partnerships with the community “to try to get kids where they need to be,” citing Ralston Academy as an example.

“We’re just going to have a big group of kids who need extra support.”

Board Member Richard Borden asked whether the district has looked at what others are doing.

Yates said he’s spent “several hours” “on a daily basis” with other superintendents, trying to figure out how to implement ODE mandates, its options, how to better support teachers.

“We’re taking a system where our struggle was disengagement and we’ve gone to distance learning, and those kids that were disengaged before, it’s going to be a struggle. Kids were tapering off the longer we were in that online learning.”

He said students want social contact, “with their peers” and “teachers want those kids there. They want to interact with them.”

“The difference in having some of those kids be successful, really, is having a relationship with some adults who care about them.”

Martin said that “the plan, as we move forward, is really going to be critical. That’s the way we deliver what you just said.”

“That’s the way we’re going to be able to deliver

Oliver said the “hybrid model” in the fall needs to be “more engaging than what the distance learning was on its own, and more engaging than what our traditional in-school model has been. That’s the only way we’re going to change these numbers.”

In other action, the board:

– Voted unanimously in support of a $75,572,671 budget. That figure includes $27,440,341 in instruction costs and $16,716,523 in support services from the General Fund, which totals $48,256,864.

– Decided to hold off on approving a construction excise tax to fund new school construction in the district after Business Director William Lewis told board members there have been some sticking points in negotiating an intergovernmental agreement to collect the tax in areas of the district outside the city limits. The City Council has already approved the tax, which would charge $1.25 per square foot on structures or portions of structures intended for residential use, including but not limited to single-unit or multiple-unit housing; and 62 cents per square foot on structures or portions of structures intended for nonresidential use, not including multiple-unit housing of any kind. The tax would not exceed $33,700 per building permit or $33,700 per structure, whichever is less.

Lewis suggested the board approve an IGA with the city, but board members said they felt better about getting the bugs worked out with the county before approving either.

Oliver said he didn’t “particularly like having the construction excise tax imposed on one group of citizenry and not another,” though he acknowledged the district was within its legal rights to collect from developments in the city, but not the county. “I think I’d prefer to treat them the same.”

He said he realized that the district could lose out on “substantial revenue” by waiting – “there’s a lot of development going on right now.”

Schilling noted she opposes the tax and wouldn’t be voting for it.

– Heard from Lewis that the district has been successful in procuring a $2,474,249 Seismic Rehabilitation Grant Program from the state of Oregon to help retrofit the LHS gym with seismic upgrades.

– Agreed to hold its July meeting at 6 p.m. on July 23.