Before district staff unveiled their tentative plans Thursday night for a gradual return to the classroom, beginning with the youngest elementary school students the week of Feb. 8, dozens of students, parents and teachers weighed in with their views of reopening schools amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic.
Not surprisingly, a plethora of perspectives was on display, with some favoring a gradual return, some believing the district should stay the course until vaccines are more widely available, and some believing schools should have reopened a long time ago.
One group, however, was virtually unified in its message: The kids want to go back to school.
“I miss all of my friends,” said Abigail, age 10, a fifth-grader. “I miss the teachers. Kids need more human interaction. I miss carrying my backpack and my lunchbox. My brother has no friends in my neighborhood so he is in the house doing nothing.”
Many cited things they missed about in-person instruction, like seeing friends, playing games, participating in extracurricular activities and having lunch with their peers — though coronavirus restrictions are likely to restrict many aspects of the school experience even after in-person learning resumes.
Others pointed to the challenges of distance learning, including difficulties understanding and communicating over Zoom and a lack of opportunity for one-on-one instruction from their teachers.
“I want to be able to learn more about science and technology — not through a screen,” Kinsley, a 12-year-old seventh-grader, said in a message to the school board Thursday. “I want to learn better and have a better understanding of the stuff the teachers are talking about.”
“My peers and I have had to live through distance learning for almost a year now and mental health has taken a big toll,” added Ashley Peterson, a high school junior. “More and more, I have been noticing friends, teammates, and my peers having mental health issues and the cause of this is not being back in school.
“Distance learning is not the same as in-person learning. I feel even more stressed with distance learning than I did with in-person learning.”
A number of parents expressed concerns about the impact that the loss of school and other anchor points of daily life have had on their children. Michelle Walker, parent of a Knight Elementary student, said “last year’s joke of virtual learning” forced her daughter into depression.
“She hated life. She hated me. She hated the school and she hated herself,” Walker said. “This year, that depression has turned into apathy. She no longer cares. I’m not sure which is worse. She’s lost her spark. That fire that has made her who she is. She no longer feels passionately about anything. She’s losing herself.”
Other students, however, have thrived in the distance learning environment. Tamara Quandt, mother of a bilingual third-grader, praised the dedication of her son’s teachers in preparing engaging lessons and supporting students during a difficult time.
“My son is so much happier in this distance learning model because he has the necessary breaks needed to refocus his brain, explore independent interests, increase creativity, build independence and grow his level of personal responsibility,” she said.
“He has also developed a much deeper sense of empathy, caring and kindness towards others. I have been amazed and emotionally overwhelmed by the positive growth and change I have seen in my child over the past four months.”
The health and safety of students and staff was a concern for some, with several commenters stating their belief that reopening should not happen until after the Covid-19 vaccine is more widely available.
“I do not believe that you can keep my children or your staff safe,” said parent Veronica Stewart. “Back when I took educational law, I was taught that the only legal right general education students have in Oregon is the right to be safe. Parents cannot sue if their child does not learn, but they can if you do not keep their child safe.”
Troy Soles, a parent, high school teacher and coach, said he is sensitive to the need to return kids to the classroom, but still urged caution, feeling it would be “irresponsible” to bring back staff until they have the opportunity to be vaccinated.
“If that immunization is made available, I’ll be among the first lining up to get it — after which, I’ll have no problem returning to in-person instruction,” he said.
“I’m not worried about myself but about my potential to be a carrier who could infect my family, my students, my parents (who live with me), or one of my colleagues, and I don’t want their potential illness or death on my conscience.”
Other educators supported a return, like CHS health and P.E. teacher Jennifer Peterson, who said she worries about her students’ mental health.
“As a teacher in the district, I am all for reopening schools, the sooner the better,” she said. “It has been proven in multiple other states around the country that it can be done safely. Schools have been open and kids are participating in sports, band, drama, dance, choir, etc. with none to very little transmission of the Covid-19 virus.”
While the news of Canby schools offering a hybrid in-person option for younger students in a month’s time was welcomed by many, there were some who felt this was still far too slow.
A growing group of parents and community members, which has united under the Facebook group Open Canby Schools began circulating a petition this week demanding that classrooms and facilities for all grades reopen immediately.
Their first responses had begun to trickle in as of Thursday, with petition sheets bearing a total of 14 signatures being included among the other public comments.