PORTLAND, Ore. — As more school districts across Oregon figure out plans to bring more kids into the classroom, there are some schools that have already brought students back for full-time in-person learning.
Many larger districts in the state have complicated decisions to make when it comes to how to safely offer limited in-person instruction for students.
But for some smaller schools, like Cathedral School in Northwest Portland, the transition has been a little easier.
“We are opening up, but it’s going to be far from business as usual,” said Amy Biggs. She’s the principal at Cathedral School, a private Catholic school serving kids in Pre-Kindergarten to eighth grade who are now in class for full-day, in-person learning.
“We have everyone here Pre-K through eighth grade that has chosen to come. We still have a distance learning option for our kids at home,” said Biggs.
She said 81% of the 260 students enrolled are choosing to attend in person.
In the fall, teachers taught kids online from their classrooms. The school soon brought back its youngest kids for limited in-person instruction. The majority of those kids were already participating in the school’s daycare program and were familiar with the school’s COVID-19 safety protocols, which made the transition to full in-person learning easier.
This week, middle school students joined younger students, coming back for full-day, in-person school.
Biggs said the size of the school along with the state’s revised guidelines and metrics have been crucial to reopening.
“Small schools like Cathedral School, 260 kids, 30 or fewer staff members, we can do things in a safe way because of our size and we don’t bus. We have one class at every grade, so it’s really appreciated because the revisions have helped us open up.”
Biggs said a number of safety measures are in place.
“We are using three different entrances to the building rather than one entrance […] we’re taking everyone’s temperatures. We’ve got contact tracing where we’re recording everyone who drops the kids off and who picks them up,” said Biggs.
They’ve also got shields on students’ desks, which they’ve tried to space apart.
“We have places where they’re not quite six feet, but I’ve got the 35 square feet in the whole room and then the distance between kids is maximum extent possible,” Biggs said. “We’re adhering to all ODE [Oregon Department of Education] standards."
Biggs said right now in their middle school classrooms, there are between 21-25 kids in the room.
Students have to wear masks too, something Biggs initially thought might be an issue.
“Our kids that have been home are so excited to be back at school that all of our safety precautions, they are willing to do and they are really good at policing each other. It hasn’t been a problem at all. They’re used to wearing a mask. They’re used to hand sanitizer,” said Biggs.
The only time those masks come off is during lunch. Students stay at the same desk all day while teachers of different subjects rotate in and out.
For bathroom breaks, groups of kids go at designated times.
“Every hour one of my staff members is going through the bathrooms and spraying them all down with the electrostatic cleaning sprayer,” Biggs said.
Kids are grouped together into cohorts for recess as well.
Beth Sanchez has two children who attend Cathedral School, one in kindergarten and the other in sixth grade. She is excited her kids get to go back to in-person learning.
“We’re ecstatic really. We’re hoping that all the schools can get there. I think it’s so super important for kids to be in person,” said Sanchez.
She said while her sixth-grade son was doing well with online learning, she became concerned about the lack of socialization with peers.
“They need to have that interpersonal connection,” Sanchez said.
She said her son told her there were a lot of rules to follow. With this being his first week back, Sanchez said her son is figuring out what he can and can't do.
She expressed confidence in the school and Biggs.
Biggs said before kids even came back, she asked parents to be partners and to talk to their kids about what to expect.
“Let them know ahead of time, you’re not going to get up and walk around the classroom,” said Biggs.
“I can’t have them all sitting on the top of the slide in a big pile like the eighth-grade girls love to do.”
She said she’s continuing to ask families to keep social distancing and wearing masks.