PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Citing a “moral imperative to meet the changing nature of the pandemic and evolve our approach to serving our children,” the director of the Oregon Department of Education laid out the need to implement “distance learning” for students throughout the state.

But it won’t be easy because of the myriad layers involved — urban, rural, family size, family needs, houselessness, cost and time.

In a letter to “Superintendents and Principals” and released to the public, Colt Gill said there is “a very real potential that our students, like in many other states, may not return to school this academic year.”

That has forced educators to rethink what was going to be a month-long interruption into a long-term issue — and the need to keep educating Oregon students.

Read: Oregon’s Extended School Closure Guidance at bottom of article

Distance learning will begin on April 13

Jennifer Patterson, the assistant superintendent for the Office of Teaching, Learning and Assessment in the department, said they’ve designed “teacher-led learning time every day” for students.

“That teacher-led learning time will be tailored to be appropriate for the age of the student, in terms of duration and length,” she said. “And it will also be aligned to grade level standards.”

Jennifer Patterson, the assistant superintendent for the Office of Teaching, Learning and Assessment in the Oregon Department of Education, March 31, 2020 (KOIN)

“Our 197 school districts in Oregon will look different in each setting,” Patterson said. “It might look like online learning for some, if districts have the technology capacity and the connectivity capacity for an online model. … For others they are going to be focusing on instructional packets and paper-pencil opportunities for students that might be augmented with some technology interface.”

“We wanted to give districts an opportunity to plan, to researach and to convene with important community stakeholders around imagining what a distance learning plan might look like for them,” she said. “What we can anticipate on April 13, districts launch their ‘distance learning for all’ effort. We know that it will be improving over time. This is somethign we’re creating. It’s very newd for all of us and it will require a lot of grace and patience and trust as we try to do school in a different way in Oregon.”

Students will receive credit for this time in distance learning and they also will receive grades and/or progress markers, Patterson said.

School districts react

A spokesperson for Portland Public Schools told KOIN 6 News they plan to release more information on Wednesday.

Beaverton Superintendent Don Grotting said they were already headed in this direction with supplement leaning, but there are certainly challenges.

“It caused us to pivot but not pivot too much because we were already planning to implement distance learning, and we had 3 different phases,” Grotting told KOIN 6 News.

“I think for Beaverton, primarily it’s going to be online but we’re really looking through an equity lens and we have to make sure that all of our students are being served,” Grotting said.

“Our folks have gone into all the schools and we’ve dismantled our classroom sets of devices and we’re actually in the process of handing them out this week. Parents are able to pull up at these locations and we’ll just hand them to them.”

Oregon Education Association reaction

In a statement, OEA President John Larson said Oregon educators will do what they’ve always done “in the midst of this national crisis” — work with the resources available to provide the best education possible.

“However, we maintain that in this unprecedented moment – where both students and
educators are expected to rapidly transition from traditional in-person instruction to
distance instruction – that it is crucial that our elected leaders ensure that students aren’t
penalized for an inability to thrive under these new circumstances. With some students
lacking the proper technology, connectivity, resources, or time to fully engage with a
distance learning model school districts must acknowledge and incorporate that reality into
their Distance Learning for All plans.”

A child reading. (KOIN)

‘Distance Learning for All’ does not mean only one thing

Gill was blunt and direct in his letter to educators.

“Education without face-to-face interaction between students and teachers will look and feel different and cannot be fully replicated across a distance. It will not and cannot happen overnight. We need the grace and patience of our state’s leaders, our communities, our families, and our educators as we learn together to move powerfully to ensure care, connection, and continuity of learning happen in entirely new ways for our students.”

He also noted it’s not just the classes students are missing. Gone, too, are proms, field trips, graduations, award ceremonies. And he called on “every caring adult” to step up to help guide students through these uncharted waters.

And the uncharted waters are plenty deep.

“The vast majority of Oregon educators have not taught online and some districts have varying levels of experience, capacity, and technology tools,” Gill wrote to the principals and superintendents.

“Let’s take this head on utilizing our resourcefulness and creativity understanding not all distance education will be online. Meaningful education can be provided through educational materials distributed in packets, via individual and group calls, and other efforts that may be employed to ensure continuity of learning.

“Imagine a family with a 7th grader and a 10th grader, each with 6 or 7 different teachers and classes with one computer to share between the students. We must find ways for their classes to be scheduled in ways they can access all the content.”

Distance education, particularly for younger students, relies on parents and adults in the family to “be active partners with teachers,” Gill said. They must be tutors, provide structure, support learning and do what is necessary to help that student succeed.

“This will look different within distance learning and we have to find ways to partner teachers and parents to nurture learning within this context.”

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Students without a residence, lack of internet

Last year, Gill said, more than 22,000 Oregon students didn’t have a regular residence. The pandemic with its simultaneous decimation of jobs, is likely to cause that number to grow.

“We will need to think of creative strategies to provide access to learning for students in these situations where a tablet or laptop and hotspot connection to the internet may not be the most practical way to provide access to learning for some students,” he said.

There are also parts of Oregon that have internet connection issues. That lack of internet access will “require flexibility” for schools to serve the needs of the students and families community by community.

‘We will center on equity’

The effort to make Distance Learning for All an almost-immediate reality will need innovation, creativity and talent to make it happen, he said.

“These are a few of the issues our state and our schools will be working to meet head-on at the same time they are beginning to deliver Distance Learning for All,” Gill wrote. “The effort carries its challenges, through them we will center on equity. Our school house doors were open to every single student in our state, and as we shift to Distance Learning for All we must ensure our education services are accessible to every student in our state. We will do all we can to meet the needs and strengths of students with disabilities, emerging bilingual students, talented and gifted students, and students navigating poverty and houselessness.”