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Many Portland-area private school students back in the classroom part-time

"It really has breathed some life into them and given them some hope that this will eventually be over," Columbia Christian School 6th grade teacher Doug Moore said.

PORTLAND, Oregon — Public schools in the Portland metro area can't have students back in the classroom full-time yet based on coronavirus cases and other public health metrics. But private schools can have kids back part-time under the state's Ready Schools, Safe Learners 2020-21 school year rules.

It feels foreign but teachers and staff at Cathedral School in Northwest Portland are grateful to be there. So are the kids, who are now in school for a few hours a day for the first time since March.

“I'm so excited that I'm really at school now!” Jack Hanover, a Cathedral School student, said.

Oregon private schools came up with their own plans for the 2020-2021 school year.

"We’re trying to work out ways to encourage kids to interact with each other. That certainly looks different if they’re on a screen. But we use breakout rooms so we can actually have small groups of students,” Cathedral School kindergarten teacher Kate Gobel said.

"Our young students, K through third grade, really need face-to-face instruction,” Cathedral School principal Amy Biggs said.

Cathedral School opened up to kindergarteners through third graders, who are separated into groups of 20, under an emergency daycare license.

"Our instructional assistants are managing kids and supervising digital learning while teachers in their classrooms are actually teaching digitally to the kids at home. And kids are located in our cafeteria, library, music room,” Biggs said.

Columbia Christian in Northeast Portland chose to go with a hybrid model for now, meaning limited in-person plus distance learning.

Because all three of her kids have roughly the same schedule, parent Junko Tuss brings her kindergartener, second-grader and fourth-grader to school at the same time on Mondays and Thursdays.

Kindergartners through eighth-graders have been back in small cohorts for two hours in the morning two days a week for the past week. The rest of the time students do remote learning.

Columbia Christian president Ami Vensel said under Oregon Department of Education (ODE) guidelines, students are allowed to be back at the small private school more than two days a week, but they are limiting it so teachers can adjust.

“They’re supporting kids at school, at home and they're still meeting those requirements of instruction every day. So, it's a lot to manage,” Vensel said.

"A lot of students, being physically in the room, even though they're removed distance-wise, it really has breathed some life into them and given them some hope that this will eventually be over. We just have to be smart while it's still here,” Columbia Christian School sixth grade teacher Doug Moore said.

Moore has eight kids in his class at a time, physically distant and masked-up. The most challenging component has been trying to keep his middle school students apart and socially distant, so he must remind them constantly.

Private schools have to follow certain parts of the state's guidance. They must follow public health protocols as outlined in the state's guidance, which includes things like health screenings before entering buildings and face coverings; facilities and school operations, which covers cleaning and ventilation, arrival and dismissal and technology; and they must develop disease prevention and response to a COVID-19 outbreak.

"I think they're doing their best: they’re checking temperatures, using sanitizers in the morning when they go in and during school. I can’t see but I believe, I trust them the same way with masks and face coverings,” Tuss said.

Parents like Tuss who sent kids back, even just for a couple hours a week, breathed a small sigh of relief this month.

“I could take anything after being stuck at home all alone with the kids for six months. So, we’re really glad,” she said.