On Wednesday, Sweet Home School District Superintendent Tom Yahraes hit send on an email to parents outlining the plan to bring students back to classrooms and warning that school will not be the same.
Since April, most students have been barred from in-person instruction by state metrics surrounding the spread of COVID-19. In December, Gov. Kate Brown announced those metrics would be altered on Jan. 19 and would become advisory rather than mandatory, placing the decision about reopening squarely in local districts.
And while the decision is local, the circumstances surrounding it are still shaped by state mandates. Students must wear face coverings, practice social distancing and classes must be smaller.
"This does not mean business as usual," Yahraes said of the reopening. "We can anticipate cohorts having to quarantine, we have seen it in limited in-person learning."
On Feb. 1 Sweet Home students in grades K-3 can return to classes. They will not have the same teachers they have had during comprehensive distancing learning due to the necessary smaller in-person classes.
Grades 4-6 will return Feb. 16 and 7-12 will return between Feb. 12 and Feb. 18 depending on their grade level.
Students who do not feel comfortable returning to in-person instruction can remain in comprehensive distance learning and teachers, Yahraes said, will teach both.
"If you have 20 students and five students are on CDL, you still will be teaching those five students," he said.
The decision to bring students back, Yahraes said, stemmed from the decision by the governor to allow those decisions to happen at the local level and the distinct circumstances he said Sweet Home students face.
"In Sweet Home, the majority of our parents do not have a four-year degree and these kids are taking algebra and the higher math, they're not getting that individualized support the best they can," he said. "Our students are having heart wrenching experiences and we have to have the courage to open," he added, noting that in some instances, students learning from home experience neglect, depression and anxiety.
Still, he said he understood parents frustration with the limited class sizes and rotating, partial day schedules that make scheduling daycare difficult.
"None of us like it," he said.
The district, Yahraes said, has implemented health protocols mandated by the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education but still expects for the virus to cause shut downs before vaccination is widespread.
Yahraes said that when weighing whether to open, he was aware educators have been identified as a priority group for the vaccine but that timeline made no promises.
"They have to get the first shot and then it's 28 days before the second dose and a time period after that before they are full vaccinated," he said. "If we wait for the vaccine, we're extending the hardship for our students."
Staff who is not comfortable returning to class can take a leave of absence under the district's reopening plan.
"As educators, if we're going to say, 'no, I need to be fully vaccinated before I go back to class,' I'm certainly happy none of the grocery clerks, police officers, nurses, gas station attendants and other people haven't said they're not going to help because they don't have the vaccine," Yahraes said.
During a Greater Albany Public Schools meeting on Monday, the same sentiment was expressed with school officials and county health director Bill Muth noting that exposure is an important consideration; teachers have prolonged exposure to several individuals exceeding the CDC's definition of 15 minutes over the course of the day.
Citing studies that show schools are not vectors for the virus, Yahraes said the district will move forward but asked the community to help.
If a students is exposed to the virus, even outside of school grounds, and tests positive after coming in contact with their cohort, the entire cohort must quarantine and miss school.
"It takes the community's help and we have to work together," Yahraes said. "I have faith in the community that we will rally for the kids."