Parents Decry Failure to Expand In-Person Learning at BPMS

There was one large and notable exception to the Canby School District’s plans to return most students to four full days of in-person instruction on April 27: Namely, Baker Prairie Middle School. 

The district’s only middle school (with the exception of Ninety-One School in Hubbard, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade) will remain in a much more limited hybrid schedule until the end of the school year.

Administrators said that, even given the more generous three-foot distancing guidelines now permitted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they were unable to expand in-person learning at Baker Prairie due to limited space and staff.

But at the Canby School Board’s April 15 meeting, a number of parents and community members voiced their opinion that those excuses are not good enough.

“There is no reason for us not to be back in school full time,” wrote Darla Schulte, a mother of two elementary students and one middle schooler. “It is completely unacceptable. If something isn’t done soon, we will be pulling our children out of school.”

“I think it is completely unfair to our students that they are limited to two in-person days while other schools are allowing four full days of in-person classes,” David Smith agreed. “All our students need to be provided the same opportunities for in person school.”

One of the most heart-breaking comments came from Sarah Morrow, who recounted how she had read Superintendent Trip Goodall’s email to her three children last week — discovering in real time that her middle schooler would not be returning to four days a week with her younger siblings.

“My daughter is suffering, and you had the power to help but you gave up fighting for her,” Morrow told the district. “You gave up on all students at Baker Prairie with a swipe of your pen and you voted against fighting for my daughter.”

Later in the meeting, Goodall and Baker Prairie Principal Jennifer Turner elaborated on the unique challenges facing the middle school. 

The first is that virtually all BPMS students — 98% — have opted to return to in-person learning. Fewer than 50 want to remain in the Canby Online Learning Academy.

From there, it comes down to room capacity, Turner said. Even under the more relaxed standards, Baker Prairie classrooms can accommodate a maximum of 19 students — and even then, most would be out of compliance with regard to the six-foot distancing still required for staff.

With current enrollment, the average class size would be 21 or 22, which fails to account for the possibility of additional COLA students choosing to return or of new students moving into the district.

Art, music and band classes would be even larger, with more than 30 students enrolled.

“I can’t make the rooms any bigger than they are,” Turner said. “This is not my guidance; it’s the guidance that’s been given to us. And it’s for the safety of our students and staff, for when they go home to their families and their communities.”

While some parents and board members floated the ideas of using gyms, cafeterias, modules, outdoor tents or even the Ackerman Center to add some additional square footage to the equation — Turner said it’s not that simple.

BPMS does not have the teachers to staff additional classrooms — not because some educators are refusing to return to work, as several commenters claimed — but because they simply don’t exist.

“100% of teachers are back teaching at Baker Prairie,” Turner said. “They’re not at home.”

The district could hire more middle school teachers, but it’s questionable as to whether qualified personnel could be recruited before the end of the school year.

Ackerman presents additional challenges, as the former middle school is not as empty as is often assumed. In fact, only three classrooms would currently be open for additional students, with the rest allocated for early learning, the REACH program, post-high school transition, tutoring and occupational therapy.

But reopening a second, fully functioning middle school campus would require much more than three educators, even if there are only three classrooms available.

“How would we decide which students go to Ackerman, and how do we ensure they get all of their classes?” Turner asked. “They see six teachers a day.”

While most members voiced support and praise for staff and their efforts to reopen schools — including BPMS — the Canby School Board was unanimous in pushing administrators to find a creative way to expand in-person learning opportunities for middle schoolers.

“Although I am glad we are making improvements in getting our kids back to school, it simply isn’t enough, nor is it currently equitable for all of our students,” said Director Stefani Carlson.

“I’m disappointed and frustrated that they can’t go back to four days a week, and I understand [parents’] disappointment and frustration in that decision,” agreed Director Tom Scott.

“But I can tell you, I think the administration … is equally frustrated that they can’t get people back.”

Regardless of what happens this May, Goodall said the district plans to offer five full days of in-person instruction in the 2021-22 school year.

“We are planning on going back to a normal school year in the fall,” he said.

Director Dawn Depner insisted that the district have contingency plans in place in the event that the three-foot distancing guidelines are still in place next fall, to which Goodall readily agreed.

And Turner made clear she would continue to explore outside-the-box solutions for Baker Prairie.

“I have not stopped thinking about it,” she said. “I wake up at night. I think about it early in the morning. It is constantly on my mind how to get our kids back in school more hours and more days.

“We are fighting for your students and the community needs to know that. We have not given up on your kids, and we have not given up on you as parents.”

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