A lawn sign to honor graduating seniors in Jefferson County, who were unable to take part in an in-person graduation ceremony.
A lawn sign to honor graduating seniors in Jefferson County, who were unable to take part in an in-person graduation ceremony.

Pamplin Media Group

Oregon students spent the last three months of the 2019-20 school year learning remotely, and this fall, they’re poised to do the same.

When COVID-19 became impossible to ignore in early April, schools across the state closed their doors indefinitely, following a temporary two-week closure. After initial delays, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, backed by the Oregon Health Authority, announced an executive order that would keep kids learning from home for the remainder of the year.

While necessary to prevent the spread of infection, Oregon’s school closures had tremendous impacts on students and families — particularly in rural areas.

More than half of Oregon’s 200 school districts enroll fewer than 1,000 students and two dozen districts have enrollments of less than 100.

The impromptu remote learning model meant many children lost the structure, and in some cases, the resources they relied on from schools. School districts scrambled to triage, disseminating tablets and laptops to students for remote learning and offering school meals for curbside pick-up at various locations.

This spring, Woodburn school officials scrambled to distribute laptop computers to allow the district’s 5,600 students to shift to distance learning. Photo courtesy of Ricardo Vasquez

Uncertainty around the 2020-21 school year swirled throughout the summer, as Oregon’s COVID-19 numbers climbed, with a record high 437 new cases reported on July 16. Two weeks later, Gov. Brown rolled out new COVID-19 health-based criteria that would require the continuation of remote learning for most students into the fall.

In response, schools in nearly every county announced they would start the 2020-21 school year online, starting in September.

Oregon’s rural schools faced several obstacles, including a lack of reliable internet service for vast portions of their service areas. And, many Latino families are having to navigate challenges that fall disproportionately to their communities.

Yesenia Sánchez, who is preparing to send her daughter to kindergarten next month, lives in Woodburn, which has one of the highest concentrations of Latinos in Oregon. Many Latinos in her town, about 30 miles south of Portland, work in agriculture or food-processing plants.

For such parents, she said, distance learning “is definitely going to have an impact, because there are families who have to go to work, and so sometimes they’re leaving their kids at home to figure it out on their own.”

She said that, as a young mom who grew up in Oregon, she feels prepared to help her daughter learn from home. But she knows that many Latino parents struggle with the language and technology their kids are using.

“When I was growing up, if this had happened, I think my mom would try to help us figure it out,” she said. “But my dad doesn’t even know how to turn on a computer.”

Oregon COVID-101

Public schools will resume in-class learning only when the math adds up.

Oregon’s metrics for reopening public school classrooms require a county to have 10 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents for three consecutive weeks, and a county must show positive test rate growth of 5% or less for the past seven days. Additionally, statewide, Oregon must have 5% or less positive tests for three weeks in a row, according to the revised state mandates. The rules are a little more relaxed for children in kindergarten through third grade, and those with special needs, or English language learners.

“Younger students get the virus at lower rates, get less sick when they get COVID-19 and may spread the virus less than older children or adults,” Oregon’s Ready Schools Safe Learners plan states. “Younger students also need access to in-person instruction to build literacy and numeracy skills critical to their continued learning.”

— Courtney Vaughn

Reporter Natalie Skowlund contributed to this article, which is part of a collaborative reporting project that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore.news/Pamplin Media Group and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. Additional funding for Pamplin Media Group’s exploration of the impact of distance-learning on Latino students comes from the Google News Initiative.

Lead photo: Like many Oregon school districts, Jefferson County provided lawn signs to honor graduating seniors, who were not be able to take part in an in-person graduation ceremony. The district, whose student body is almost evenly split between Native American, Latino and white students, is starting this upcoming school year like it ended last year, with distance learning. Jennifer Grant/PMG

Courtney Vaughn is a reporter for the Portland Tribune who has covered K-12 education in Oregon’s two largest school districts.