‘Re-learn how to be in school’: Oregon district open since fall shares lessons

Special Reports

The Colton School District has offered limited in-person instruction since October and is now starting to reopen more fully

COLTON, Ore. (KOIN) — Students rushed off the bus to line up 6-feet apart for their visual screenings before entering Colton Elementary School, in an atmosphere Superintendent Koreen Barreras-Brown described as “ecstatic” for kids, teachers and parents alike.

“Everybody was smiling but we couldn’t tell because we had our masks on,” Barreras-Brown said.

This week marked the official hybrid reopening of the elementary school, with students coming back on alternating days — one group Monday and Wednesday and another Tuesday and Thursday. However, Colton has been offering limited in-person instruction for all grades since late October, one of the first districts to do so.

Limited in-person reopening

The Colton School District is small: About 600 students attend the elementary, middle and high schools. But the community is tight-knit and resilient. Many stayed behind to help fight the wildfires that encroached on the town in September, an event that delayed the start of distance learning for several weeks.

“It really bound the community together,” parent and substitute teacher Shelly Shumate said.

Everyone KOIN 6 News spoke with cited that closeness and cooperation as the main reason for the district’s success with its partial reopening last fall.

“The consensus I was hearing was everybody was ready to put their kids back in school and do whatever it takes to make that happen in a safe environment,” Shumate said.

Barreras-Brown said there’s been no conflict or hostility when it comes to reopening, unlike some other districts in the Northwest and around the country. “People are very understanding that this is a process,” she said.

Fourth grade teacher Carly Madlem pushed to have students come back for limited in-person learning because she saw her students struggling.

“Teaching virtually, you can’t go at the same pace you would in a normal school day. You don’t have as much one-on-one time with them,” she said.

On an emotional level, Madlem said bringing kids back was a game changer.

“Just being here for that hour and a half, two hours, their mood would just change for the whole rest of the day,” she said. “So I think it was just being around their classmates.”

High school guidance counselor Lauren Holst said the older students have had similar success. Teachers can work with them one-on-one, targeting whatever needs aren’t being met over the computer. They saw a noticeable change in academic performance after introducing limited in-person instruction.

Students at Colton High School are able to get face-to-face instruction, since the district’s opened for limited in-person instruction in October (KOIN)

“It’s been tremendous, the amount of success they’re experiencing now,” Holst said. “Even if they just attended two weeks, even if they’ve been coming every single day, their growth has been amazing.”

Shumate has two sons still in school. One, a freshman, is taking advantage of in-person schooling twice a week because he needed more help, especially with math, and was missing the social aspect of school. Her older son, a junior, has stayed online-only, because it’s easy for him and he has started a fulltime job.

“He’s on the path to graduate early and he’s doing great,” Shumate said.

Safety first

Before students enter the classroom, they’re supposed to go through multiple screenings. The first is at home, then the bus drivers do a visual screening, and finally the teachers check to make sure no one is feeling sick. Desks are spaced apart, there’s lots of hand sanitizer, and students keep their faces covered except for designated “mask breaks.”

“The number one thing that keeps us from contacting the virus and being able to mitigate any sort of spread in our school district, is not coming to school or work sick,” Barreras-Brown said, knocking on wood every time she mentions that the district has not had any coronavirus cases since reopening for limited in-person.

As long as Clackamas County continues to meet state metrics, the district hopes to bring most middle schoolers and high schoolers back by March 1, though students can keep doing distance learning if their families want.

While the vaccine is just now becoming available for teachers, Madlem said she has felt “completely safe” returning to the classroom. “We had no issues of sickness or anything because parents were responsible, the students were responsible.”

Shumate said Colton’s already small class sizes have made it easy to social distance, but that any school can follow their example.

“I think it’s very possible to open up the schools and just be really smart, safe and responsible,” she said.

What other teachers and administrators can learn from Colton

As more schools look to reopen, either fully or in a limited capacity, Barreras-Brown emphasized the importance of working with all stakeholders, from teachers and custodial staff, to parents and students.

Madlem stressed that teachers should share their successes and strategies with others.

“If something’s working in your classroom, let everybody know about it,” she said. “We’re having to re-learn how to be in school.”

And above all?

“Be excited for the kids,” Madlem said. “(They) haven’t been in school for almost a year. And kindergarteners coming in for the first time, be excited for them. They’re excited to be here. They want to be here.”

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