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Welches Schools reopen posted on 03/01/2021

On Thursday, Feb. 18, Debbie Ortiz dropped her five-year-old son, James, off at Welches Schools for his first day of in-person kindergarten. She described the process that she and her husband went through to make the decision for James to go as “a struggle,” following the months of virtual learning due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We sat down and talked it over. We went through all the information the school sent us; it helped,” Debbie said. “The first day after I dropped him off, I went back to my vehicle and I cried. I hope I did the right thing.

“Everything seems to be going really well so far,” she added.

That Thursday marked the return of kindergarteners and first graders to Welches Schools, with Principal Kendra Payne noting approximately 70 percent of students opting in for the hybrid model, while the remainder will continue with virtual distance learning. Each student is part of a “cohort,” a small group that attends school in person on either Monday/Thursday or Tuesday/Friday, while attending virtually on the other days.

Payne said the early returns of the hybrid schedule are going “really well.”

“I just feel like our kiddos have needed this and we’ve needed it as educators, as well,” Payne said. “I really surprised myself at how emotional I got when those first kids came in and realized how much I had relied on them and how much their absence in the building has really just affected our own mission and our passion. It’s been just really positive.”

The return to school is based on the county’s metrics for coronavirus case rates, case counts and positive tests. Payne noted that subsequent grades are expected to return in phases, depending on if the metrics allow: second and third graders returned Thursday, Feb. 25, while fourth and fifth graders are expected to return on Thursday, March 4 and sixth, seventh and eighth graders on Thursday, March 11.

“At this point I feel like we’re going to be pretty well on track with that timeline,” Payne said.

Numerous protocols are in place due to the pandemic, including required face coverings for students, staff and visitors, six feet of physical distancing between people (including proper spacing for desks and tables), visual screenings for symptoms, sanitizing classrooms and frequent touchpoints and more. Students will not eat breakfast or lunch at the school, but will receive a meal pack as they exit for home (teachers may include snack breaks and will share more information on this with families).

Payne noted that it was a challenge to address the required components for reopening and addressing all the logistics that go into a typical school day, from paths of travel in the hallways and the use of bathrooms, to how to use exits/entrances and the way in which arrivals and dismissals will take place.

“We’ve just really had to kind of think about all of it a little bit differently and just be willing to change our processes,” she said.

One updated change will be a drive-through loop for parents to pick up their children after school. Vehicles will enter from Salmon River Road, travel to the basketball court (between the elementary and middle school buildings), use a number system associated with all the children in the family to pick them up and then exit via Woodsey Way.

“That was actually inspired by the PGE support stations that were set up during the fires,” Payne said, referencing the wildfires that impacted the area in September 2020.

Even with all the protocols in place, the district is also preparing for a possible positive test at the school, including following state and county guidelines such as isolation, parent notification, cleaning/disinfecting and contact tracing. Oregon Trail School District Communications Director Julia Monteith noted that even if a test were to come back positive, that might not mean the school would cease in-person instruction.

“It would be more probable that if there was an exposure within a cohort, that cohort might need to quarantine for a couple weeks, but not necessarily both cohorts,” Monteith said, adding that the metrics in Clackamas County are “really good right now.”

Monteith also noted that the district’s schools could stay open even if the county’s metrics rose, as long as the school’s metrics were under control, while also offering COVID testing.

Meanwhile, James appreciates being back at school “because of my friends,” although his mom reported one aspect about the return that he’d like to see some improvement on.

“The only thing he said the first day is, ‘We can’t go play on the swings and stuff,’” Debbie said.

For more information about OTSD’s hybrid learning and the return to school visit www.oregontrailschools.com.

By Garth Guibord/MT

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