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School leaders in Oregon and Washington chart course for reopening and look to the future

The heads of public schools in both states believe it's important to get students back in class and that it can be done safely with proper COVID-19 protocols.

PORTLAND, Ore. — While many in Oregon and Washington eagerly await getting the COVID-19 vaccine, school leaders in both states are charting a course for schools to reopen even before everyone is vaccinated. 

The heads of public schools in Oregon and Washington believe it's critically important to get students back in class and believe they can do it safely if health safety protocols are followed. The director of the Oregon Department of Education, Colt Gill, and Washington's Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, were guests on this week's episode of "Straight Talk."

Both Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee relaxed state guidelines for reopening schools.

In a Dec. 23 letter, Brown gave control of when to reopen to local districts and schools, in partnership with local public health agencies. She said she hoped more Oregon schools, especially elementary schools could open by Feb. 15.

Director Colt Gill said the governor also emphasized caution in following the science and the evidence to find the safest ways to return students back to in-person instruction. He said the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) worked with partners at the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and reviewed studies, including metrics from the Harvard Global Health Institute. Those recommendations allow for a return to in-person learning for elementary students even when there are higher community case rates.

Portland Public Schools is planning on returning to limited in-person instruction at more than a dozen schools starting the first week of February.

RELATED: A look at COVID-19 safety measures inside one Portland school

Washington is also working toward reopening schools across the state, especially for younger students. Superintendent Chris Reykdal said he recognizes there are many people wondering if reopening schools aligns with the timeline for mass vaccinations, but he said reopening can happen before a vaccine is widely available.

"We've been really clear in our state, you don't need a vaccine to open schools safely with the protocols we have," he said.

Watch the full episode:

Teachers concerned about safety

KGW has heard from a number of teachers who think the Oregon timeline is rushed and say they don't feel safe returning to the classroom. The president of the Tigard-Tualatin Education Association, Scott Herron, said there are a lot of unknowns causing anxiety for teachers.

"We want to be vaccinated. We're right there. The ship is sinking, there are life rafts, but we have some parents that want us to jump in the water," he said. "When, let's go ahead and make it safe for everyone."

Gill said about 60,000 students in Oregon are going to school on a daily basis already. Based on evidence from those schools and from other states, he said with proper protocols in place, it's possible to reopen schools safely. Gill said they haven't seen COVID-19 transmission at school sites where there's diligent entry screening, social distancing rules, face covering requirements, cleaning and sanitizing, and frequent hand washing.

"We do feel we can do a lot to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the school environment, even when there is significant community spread where those rules may not be followed," he said.

Struggles of students

Both Colt Gill and Chris Reykdal understand students are struggling with the comprehensive distance learning model.

Reykdal, who has two teenaged children in public schools, knows the difficulties firsthand. His frustration spilled over during a Washington legislative hearing in November when he used foul language to describe what he sees happening in his own family.

"I've got a son failing two classes. He's never failed in his life. He's taken AP classes all three years. He's struggling like hell right now. This is a s---- system," he said. "This instruction model does not work for a lot of kids."

RELATED: Washington schools superintendent uses foul language to describe pandemic's impact on education

Reykdal said it isn't necessarily the content the students struggle with, but the isolation from their peers and lack of interaction with their teachers in the room. He said he knows students and educators are doing their best to make it work, but he said it's not a long-term sustainable model.

"Which is why we are prioritizing getting back into schools as quickly and safely and sustainably as we can," he said.

Addressing the impact on students' mental health

Parents, teachers and students themselves report many young people are experiencing depression and other mental health issues.

Eighth grader Melanie told KGW the isolation and lack of interaction with her friends has taken her down a dark path.

"Depression is very invisible and it's kind of hard to tell if somebody is struggling or not," said Melanie. "So, it might look like someone is doing fine with distance learning, that they are totally OK with it, but they could be struggling and you just don't know."

ODE Director Gill called Melanie's experience heartbreaking and he's heard similar stories. He wanted to make clear, however, they haven't seen any data showing an increase in depression and suicide among students this year. But, he said the data is hard to collect.

RELATED: Gov. Brown cites child suicide concerns among reasons for vaccinating educators ahead of seniors

Gill said ODE has taken steps to provide schools and teachers resources to better support students while they're in distance learning and when they return to the classroom. In the last two weeks, the department released a toolkit on the ODE website for school staff, centered on a culturally-specific approach to rebuilding resiliency in students. Gill said it also includes how to spot signs of mental health problems that can be hard to recognize.

Editor's note: If you're struggling from a mental health crisis or suicidal thoughts, help is available. The Multnomah County Mental Health Call Center is available 24 hours a day at 503-988-4888. Lines for Life is also available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Teachers worried about lack of training to address students' mental health

Gov. Brown has prioritized teachers over seniors in getting the COVID-19 vaccine, saying it's critical to get students back in class for their mental health. 

A number of teachers contacted KGW worried they aren't prepared to address children's mental health issues when they come back to school. Ali Sullivan, a first and second grade teacher, said she doesn't have the training.

"Do all of our teachers need to have training to be able to handle children coming to school that are suicidal or depressed because I don't have that," said Sullivan. "I don't have any of that support to make sure a child who is dealing with those kinds of very important and serious and valid things. That's not going to be fixed at school. Not by me."

Both Gill and Reykdal said federal money is on the way to help support schools in the area of mental health. Reykdal said $500 million is coming to K-12 schools from coronavirus relief funds.

"They can use this through the remainder of the school year and beyond. It names a few priorities and one of them is mental health," Gill said.

Reykdal said his department is also asking Washington school districts to be intentional about addressing students' mental health needs and said they are also counting on the infusion of federal funds to help.

"There's a very large amount of federal dollars coming to all the states in the next couple of weeks," he said. "And they will have enough resources to really dive into those recovery supports, evaluating students' mental health needs, and then putting meaningful interventions in place both remotely and when we return to class."

Watch the interview with Reykdal:

Graduation rates hit record-highs in Oregon and Washington

Graduation rates for 2020 were recently released for both Oregon and Washington and they show a record four-year graduation rate for both schools.
Oregon's statewide average for the 2019-2020 school year was 82.6%.
Washington's four year average for the Class of 2020 was 82.9%. 

Both Gill and Reykdal said they were proud of how far they've come. Gill said Oregon has seen an increase of 10.6% in six years.

"And the way it's happening is as important as anything. We are beginning to close the gaps for groups that have been historically marginalized and under-served in our school districts in Oregon," Gill said.

Gill said graduation rates for Black students, Latino students and students who experience disabilities outpaced the state average and drove the entire Oregon average graduation rate higher in 2020.

Gill acknowledged that the true toll of the pandemic on students and their ability to graduate may not be revealed until later. The Class of 2020 had their year upended and persevered through enormous difficulties, but they were in the pandemic for a few months. Students now in 9th-12th grades have been in it for much longer.

"We are beginning to understand from our school districts now that we're having students experiencing higher levels of course failures, they're not earning the credits that are keeping them on track for graduation," Gill said.

ODE has developed some new tools for school districts to create equitable grading polices. Gill said they want districts to take a look at their grading practices to make sure they are designed to serve students in comprehensive distance learning.

Watch the full interview with Gill:

Washington schools superintendent wants an education transformation

While Washington Superintendent Reykdal said the state's proud of the graduation rate for 2020 and they're working hard to get students back in the classroom, he said now is not the time to settle for returning to normalcy. He wants to see Washington education, especially high school, transformed. He said there are still too many students who are never able to achieve the benchmark of a high school diploma and called it an absolute necessity in the contemporary economy.

"We think a lot about what it means to redesign the entire high school experience, particularly the last two years of high school," Reykdal said. "So, it isn't just two years of what we've always done. Two years of seat time, and more credits taken, and the same old sort of model everyone is in."

Reykdal said 60-65% of students need a rigorous academic system because they intend to go to a college or university, but he said 35-40% of students are looking for something else, maybe entering the workforce, an apprenticeship program, the military, or technical training. He wants to see the state create different pathways for different students.

"We don't really design a high school system for them at scale. There are a few programs here and there, but most of it is still geared for every student on a traditional academic path. We think we can do better," Reykdal said.

He's asking Washington school districts and the state Legislature to redesign those last two years of high school.

Read Reykdal's letter:

Push toward a balanced school year in Washington

Superintendent Reykdal is hoping the Washington Legislature will also prioritize moving to a "balanced school year." He thinks the change would improve academic performance and be beneficial for teachers and families.

Some may have heard it referred to as "year-round" school, but Reykdal said they don't want to get rid of summer vacation altogether.

A "balanced school calendar" would still have 180 instructional days, but they would be stretched out throughout the year. Instead of an 11-12 week summer break, it might be 6-7 weeks, and there would be more frequent, shorter breaks throughout the year. He thinks it would also help teachers.

"They are jamming in a 1,700-1,800 hour work life into 180 days. The rest of us get an entire year for that level of workload. So, it's burning out a lot of educators. We think we can do a better job," Reykdal said.

Reykdal said research shows a balanced academic calendar would significantly reduce summer learning loss that is compounded over time.

"Every year kids make steps forward and then the regress a little bit in the summer. If you add it all up, that summer learning loss over 12-13 years, it's significant," he said.

He's encouraging Washington lawmakers to at least consider a pilot program, or a timeline when districts could be expected to achieve a balanced calendar.

"We are pushing the research, the policy, the supports. It would be great to have a legislative partner that says, 'we get it.' It's time after 200 years of school in this country to get off the agrarian calendar," Reykdal said.

'We're in this together'

Washington Schools Superintendent Reykdal looks at the COVID-19 case numbers and understands Washingtonians' concerns about reopening school, but he says it is clear the data shows it can be done safely.

"We're all in this together. We encourage school openings safely and sustainably. We know the vaccine will accelerate things, but we don't have to wait for a vaccine to do it," he said.

Oregon ODE Director Gill asked Oregonians to hold grace and patience for one another as we navigate through the pandemic and how to safely reopen schools.

"So many people, our educators, parents, our students, are all working really hard. This is all our first time through a pandemic. We are all finding our way through it," he said.

He said everybody, whether they want to move toward in-person instruction, or believe it's safer to remain in distance learning, are all looking for what's best for children.

"So hold that in your heart as you have discussions with one another. There are going to be very challenging school board meetings across Oregon," he said. "I hope people will truly hear one another and find those pathways to do the best they can to serve their children."

Straight Talk airs Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 6:30 p.m., and Monday at 4:30 a.m. Straight Talk is also available as a podcast.

RELATED: KGW's Straight Talk is now a podcast!