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'You can feel their energy'

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Ripple Effects is a partnership between the Mail Tribune and KTVL taking an in-depth look at the many impacts of COVID-19 in the Rogue Valley. See KTVL's in-depth piece on why some sports are allowed and others aren't here.

Samantha Steele chuckles when she thinks about the analogy educators in her district would use to describe what it’s like to go through changes in the school system. Figuring all this out, they would say, is like redesigning the plane while you’re flying it.

Then COVID-19 hit and suddenly all those previous changes were seen through a different lens.

“Let me tell you, that was a very dramatic and overused analogy,” Steele says, “because this is trying to redesign the plane while you’re flying it. It’s tough. And, really, the thing is it’s been a lot of work for us, but that doesn’t even compare to what families have been through. This has been a huge hardship on families.”

The good news is that for most local school districts that plane, while not exactly coming in for a three-point landing just yet, is at least circling the runway. And for the teachers who are back in classrooms after spending the majority of the past 11 months working and teaching remotely, the joy of seeing their students again has been well worth the hiccups that have come with the various reopenings.

Central Point Elementary teacher Cadey Lee marvels at the positive energy she felt during school Tuesday, the first day of hybrid instruction for students in the Central Point School District. Eagle Point High School career and technical education teacher Daniel Langston says in the days since that district reopened Feb. 25 he’s had the best attendance he’s ever seen there.

At Eagle Point’s Hillside Elementary, kindergarten instructional assistant Amanda O’Sullivan, who also happens to be the president of the Eagle Point Education Association, insists the dichotomy of those two responsibilities hasn’t detracted from the joy she’s felt since Hillside reopened to full-day in-person instruction Monday through Friday two weeks ago.

And Katie Jensen, a ninth-grade teacher at Crater Academy of Health and Public Service, found herself basking in minutiae she hardly would have noticed pre-COVID.

“It was interesting,” Jensen said, “when I told (students) to write about what it was like their first day being back, they were writing — and for me just to hear the sound of pen and pencil on paper; the things you just never think you’re going to miss. I figured they’d write for a few minutes but a lot of them were scribbling away. We ended up taking longer on that than I thought we would just because they had stuff to say.”

As the Medford and Ashland school districts plan for their own reopenings, districts in Phoenix-Talent, Central Point and Eagle Point have already launched and are troubleshooting the glitches. And while each blueprint may be slightly different in form, they’re all being executed on the front lines by teachers who are — according to Lee, Langston, O’Sullivan and Jensen — thrilled to be seeing more students more often than at any other point since schools closed without warning last March.

Phoenix-Talent was the first local district to expand its in-person offerings, making the leap from limited in-person instruction to a hybrid model of expanded in-person education and comprehensive distance learning for families who were willing in early January. Eagle Point followed suit with its own reopening Jan. 25, fully opening for kindergarten through fifth grade and offering a hybrid model for sixth- through 12th-graders.

Central Point expanded to hybrid from LIPI Tuesday, offering most K-12 students the option of attending in-person classes two days per week.

Medford’s expansion, which will include all-day in-person for K-3 students and a hybrid format for everybody else, will be rolled out starting with the younger grades Feb. 22.

Ashland is looking at a March 1 return date for K-2 students, March 8 for students in grades three through five, and March 29 for the older students.

O’Sullivan finds herself in a unique position as Hillside Elementary heads into its third consecutive week of all-day school, something that may have seemed out of reach only a month prior. But then the vaccine arrived in Southern Oregon and, soon thereafter, an ambitious plan orchestrated by Eagle Point administrators.

O’Sullivan the teacher rejoiced, but O’Sullivan the EPEA president spoke out against the move.

“We tried to push it back to February,” she said. “As the president of the association, I felt we were not ready to open because the (Oregon Department of Education) guidelines had just come out. But then again, when will we be ready? It’s a hard thing to know. So as a union, we asked for the district to hold off until we could all get kind of prepared and find out what’s going on, but we ended up just opening up as is on (Jan. 25) and we’re kind of just ironing out those bumps.”

What kind of bumps? On that first day back, O’Sullivan said, it became apparent that not every detail had been worked out. How would the cafeteria be used? Would students eat breakfast in the classroom? How about lunch? How exactly would the screening work?

“So many things that we were trying,” she said, “but then if it didn’t work on Monday, we were like, ‘Let’s figure out what’s going to work best on Tuesday.’ It really was just making sure that we as staff knew the guidelines that were expected of us to follow.”

But while she makes no bones about the fact that she would rather have pushed the reopening back a few weeks, O’Sullivan also praised Superintendent Andy Kovach as “a great leader” and talked about her students in reverent terms.

“Working with 5-year-olds, they fill up my emotional cup,” she said. “They make me happy. I want to spend the rest of my life in kindergarten, and so I really missed them all day.”

But to those who question whether teachers’ first allegiance is to their students or their contract, O’Sullivan makes the case the answer is obvious. The EPEA’s own survey results seem to support her. According to O’Sullivan, only 23% of the district’s educators felt comfortable coming back to schools for full in-person instruction during the pandemic, but 90% also said that when the schools did reopen they would be there. They are, and still without an updated labor contract, though O’Sullivan hopes the new deal will get sent out to EPEA members for signatures as early as Monday.

“We just want to make sure we have those protections,” she said, “and I wish the community understood that more because we love being in the classroom. I think the last two weeks people have felt just amazing and they’ve gotten over those fears. There will always be some who can’t get over those fears but for the most part we have amazing educators that do their best, and it’s all for the kids.”

Langston, who’s a part of one of the most diverse CTE programs in the state (classes include cyber security, anatomy in animal science, robotics engineering and web page design), said he had about 10 students per day for LIPI and now can have up to 100. Have the students taken advantage of that opportunity? Like never before, he said. Only one student was absent — an important dentist appointment — during one recent school day, a near perfect attendance mark that’s almost unheard of, he said. But that could almost have been expected after his LIPI experience. Almost every student who had transportation consistently showed up, including those in a welding class that welded iron railings for Butte Creek Mill.

“It’s a very emotional time when your kids want to be in school and they know they’re not going to get any grade or credit for it in the long run, they just want to be part of something,” Langston said.

“The emotional side of it is that most of us that do this, the children know that we are there for them. We’re supporting them and we are guiding them and sometimes we’re pushing them a little bit. And I’m looking at this as a positive, that these kids are going to come back and truly cherish the time they have in the classroom. They’re going to realize that they’re here, that people here care about them, that people care about their futures and the journey that they’re on.”

Lee said she has 21 students in her first- and second-grade blended class at Central Point Elementary — 18 coming in for hybrid and three who opted to stay in comprehensive distance learning (yes, she must squeeze in separate Zoom lessons for CDL students).

The hybrid model has brought with it several major improvements to the learning experience, she said.

“There’s something about being in a room with a person,” she said. “You can feel their energy and you can just feed off their positive energy.”

That’s the case in the classroom, Lee said, as well as outside during recess and even in the cafeteria, which was another perk that was reintroduced with Central Point Elementary’s recent expansion. In addition, she said, there are plenty of practical upgrades that speak both to the advantages of face-to-face instruction and the limitations of remote learning.

During the reading group portion of her class, for instance, Lee emphasizes the importance of walking around watching them work, monitoring their progress, watching students track words with their fingers. The sorts of things teachers do, she says, which are impossible via CDL.

“We can do it over Zoom, but I can’t see what they’re doing,” she said, “I can’t see what they’re writing, so there’s a real barrier to instruction when you’re teaching primary school over Zoom because I’m not right there to make the corrections and suggestions that I am in person.”

Class projects are also accomplished much more efficiently in person rather than online, she added. Those projects take up the last hour of each day. When only LIPI was available, projects were always a rush job by necessity — students came in for only six hours every two weeks. Now, they know that if they can’t finish, they’ll be back in a few days and can get help then.

“Every project has a whole plethora of vocab, learning, connections, background knowledge that we’re able to just intrinsically build in the classroom,” Lee said, “and when you’re instructing over Zoom it’s a lot more of a question and answer versus discussion.”

Unlike her elementary school counterparts, Jensen had exactly zero in-person classes this school year prior to Central Point School District’s reopening. So when the ninth-graders filed into her classroom Tuesday morning, they became the first students Jensen had seen face-to-face in the building since last March. Before that, Jensen had seen her students in person only once before, during a swag bag pickup in the Crater Academy of Health and Public Service parking lot.

During that bag pickup, students asked Jensen the sorts of questions one would expect to field from freshmen: should they ever return, how would they know where to go and what to do at their new school? When the move to a hybrid was decided, Jensen remembered those questions and acted accordingly, even using her phone during one Zoom class to give the freshmen a tour, making sure to point out the school’s three screening entrances.

They all arrive safely, of course. The first class was a quiet bunch, so Jensen asked them how long before they loosen up. The answer was two weeks.

“It was so nice to see them because I was so anxious the night before,” Jensen said. “It’s like you’re excited, you’re nervous, how’s it all going to work. But once they got here it just felt so good. And it’s not like you don’t know them — we’ve been with each other on Zoom. But it felt so much better just having them in here, being able to see them.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Dillan Carrigan and Lucas Carrigan have their temperatures checked and hands sanitized before going down the hallway at Central Point Elementary School Thursday.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Austin Kennedy has his hands sanitized entering the front of Central Point Elementary School Thursday.