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Oregon Education head praises school districts' efforts during unprecedented move to distance learning

Colt Gill said he knows the state is asking a lot of families, students and educators right now.
Credit: Colt Gill

PORTLAND, Ore. — The director of the Oregon Department of Education, Colt Gill, was a guest on this week's episode of Straight Talk.

Oregon moved to distance learning statewide on April 13. Gill said he knows the state is asking a lot of families, students, and educators right now, as all schools have moved to remote learning because of the Coronavirus pandemic. However, he said he's been impressed with the results so far.

"People are really coming together in some powerful ways," he said.

Gill meets once or twice a week with superintendents of districts across the state. He said he gets to hear specific highlights, successes and challenges regularly. He pointed out creative ways some districts are responding to the challenges of remote learning.

"Springfield School District recently deployed 12 school buses with WiFi access to take into communities where families don't have an internet connection at home. Baker School District is delivering WiFi hotspots directly to students," he said.

He also praised private companies that have stepped up, including independent grocer, Ray's Food Place. The grocer has locations in many rural Oregon communities. It's made its WiFi available in not only its stores but also in the parking lots, so students can come in and access homework and lesson plans.

There's concern nationwide the pandemic, and need to move to distance learning, will exacerbate the academic achievement gap between students, especially those without internet access or families at home to help.

Oregon has 197 school districts. A majority of them are small rural districts. Gill pointed out half of them have fewer than 500 students, and 15 districts have fewer than ten students.

"The digital divide is real," he said. We have real issues trying to get broadband internet into some of these communities, even cell service. If you've ever driven across the state of Oregon, you probably have run into that problem," Gill said.

Some districts are addressing that problem by delivering paper packets or flash drives with information from teachers directly to students.


Gill said he's hopeful some districts might be able to open up classrooms for summer school. The second phase of Governor Brown's draft plan to reopen Oregon's economy mentions opening schools with physical or social distancing in place. 

Director Gill said that plan requires a community to meet certain criteria, set out by the Governor and health officials surrounding COVID-19 before schools can reopen.

"We are working with the Oregon Health Authority and other health experts and district officials to begin to think about what a thoughtful, safe, deliberate opening of schools looks like,' he said.

Gill said he thinks in some counties, where there have been few coronavirus cases, and they meet specified criteria, they could move toward summer school, and certainly, he hoped, be in classrooms by the fall.

Credit: Colt Gill

He added summer school in Oregon is a district by district decision that's open to students they invite. This year with all the "in-person" school time missed, he said he hopes any districts offering summer school would make it available to as many students as possible.

Many students and parents have been unhappy with the state's decision to eliminate letter grades for the semester, and instead, mark students pass or incomplete.

Beaverton High School sophomore, Ryder Harris, wrote a letter to KGW, and to the Oregon Department of Education questioning the move.

Harris has been taking AP courses that offer the possibility of a GPA higher than 4.0. He said he feels taking away the option for a letter grade is unfair.

He wrote, "This will, therefore, cheat us out of several potential points towards our GPA, meaning that we could potentially be passed over in college admissions in favor of another student who was allowed to use A-F grading."

Gill described the reasoning for not offering the choice for letter grades this semester, during distance learning, as an equity issue.

"By doing that, we're trying to make sure no student is penalized for something out of their control," he said. Gill said the new temporary system preserves a student's GPA so it doesn't go down.

He added grading during distance learning is challenging and can be an unfair practice, because it can reflect a student's access to technology, learning materials and family support more than individual learning.

In his letter, Harris asked why students can't have the option to choose a letter grade rather than pass or incomplete.

Gill explained that option would assume instruction and content during distance learning are a match for when schools were open.

"It's simply not. It's not the same," he said.

Gill said he responded to the Beaverton student personally. He assured him and other concerned students that Oregon colleges and universities, as well as many across the country, including Ivy League schools, are temporarily updating their admissions requirements. He said they will accept, without disadvantaging students, who are graded on a Pass/No Pass model, in lieu of letter grades.

Gill stressed the Oregon Department of Education and its schools are there for the students. He asked any student who hasn't heard from their school to reach out because he said, the school is trying to reach them.

"They are committed to maintaining that connection with you and your family, " Gill said.
That's our goal to connect with you and support you during this time," he said.

Straight Talk airs Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 6:30 p.m., and Monday at 4:30 a.m. It's also available on podcast.

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