ENTERPRISE — Wallowa County school staff, students and parents are learning to be flexible in light of the constantly changing face of education during the COVID-19 pandemic.
From Superintendent Erika Pinkerton’s office, elementary school kids can be seen at recess on the school playground. Some kids are wearing masks, but they aren’t required to do so outside.
Pinkerton said the kids also get “mask breaks” during the day, but to keep them safe desks are spaced 6 feet apart, and each classroom has its assigned playground equipment.
Steve Roundy, the Enterprise Elementary School office manager, said kids are allowed to play with soccer balls at recess, but basketballs are off limits because they are touched by so many hands — adaptations to keep the kids well.
“The kids miss their after-school sports like soccer and baseball,” Roundy said.
Pinkerton said students can’t be exposed to more than 50 people in the school and the elementary school has 150 kids and 30 staff members. To reduce exposure students go to the cafeteria and bring their lunches back to their classroom and are assigned a “buddy cohort,” a fellow student with whom they are allowed closer contact.
Instead of going to the art room, the art teacher has a wheeled cart she takes to each room and each student has their individual kits so art supplies aren’t shared.
As for hygiene, Pinkerton said handwashing and sanitizing are priorities.
“Dr. Powers met with all of our K-6 students about handwashing and we’ve had training on cleaning for all of the staff,” Pinkerton said.
The school closed just before spring break when much of the state was shutting down. Within a few weeks, children were attending school from home on Google Classrooms. This fall school reopened for in-class learning, but of the 150 students, 21 opted to learn from home.
Trish Otten was a kindergarten teacher until this year and is now working with the distance learners online.
“The kids have interaction with their grade-level teachers daily for 45 minutes and I am available every day,” Otten said.
The transition from Google Classrooms to a program called Pearson that includes curriculum wasn’t smooth at the beginning of the year and the school lost some students to a program offered by Baker County. Pinkerton said that after a couple weeks, the school had to switch to an online platform called Fuel-ed. If the school has to close again, she said a program called HMH Anywhere.
“HMH Anywhere is like Google Classroom, but with a curriculum compatible with iPads and Chromebooks,” Pinkerton said.
As for the emotional toll of constant change and increasing restrictions Pinkerton said Amy Stangel from Wallowa County Youth Services is facilitating a program called “Second Steps” — a social and emotional learning curriculum for K-6 grade students.
“Social and emotional learning were pushed to the side for a few years so we contracted with youth services and increased counseling — we have two counselors available three full days; one is focused on our high-risk kids who need more support.”
In the junior and senior high schools, the 19 students who are learning from home are using a self-paced program through Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, Pinkerton said.
In Wallowa, Superintendent Tammy Jones said the school devoted time to what she called a soft opening, giving teachers extra time to prepare.
“Each teacher met individually with each family and student to go over the routine of the classroom and how things would be when school started,” Jones said. “It was important to reconnect with families to make them feel safe and that we were ready. That was the biggest thing.”
To get the students indoctrinated in the new routines Jones said there was a celebration on the playground with a photo booth and a bag of props for the kids. As a result she said there haven’t been any real issues and things have gone really smoothly, but the changes aren’t easy on the staff.
“As teachers we give ourselves grace. Things are not going to work perfectly every time,” Jones said.
One of the big adjustments is not allowing kids to hug, so they are learning new ways to greet each other — like “air hugs.”
“I think the thing I’ve noticed most with all of our new changes is how adaptable and resilient our kids are. They have adjusted well to masks, recess and PE restrictions and cleaning protocols. Overall they are just kids, learning and growing and making friends from 6 feet away instead of in closer proximity.”
One of the most fascinating aspects of the new protocols at the school, Jones said, is with the kindergarten students who have nothing to compare their school experience.
“My little kindergarteners are least impacted because they have no expectations or understanding of what school looked like before, so they just accept most things at face value,” she said.