Keating school

Keating Elementary students Clara Jonas, front, and background, left to right, Freya Gifft, Nathan Cook and Gage Clark returned to their classroom in the school east of Baker City on Wednesday.

A review of the first 2 days of in-person classes for Baker School District elementary students brought celebratory exclamations from School Board members, administrators and teachers Thursday night.

Students in preschool through sixth grade returned to their teachers, classmates and school buildings on Wednesday and Thursday. And kindergartners were welcomed to newly remodeled classrooms at the Baker Early Learning Center, at the site of the former North Baker School Building.

Superintendent Mark Witty admitted he had to step out of a classroom during his tour of the District on opening day because he was tearing up at the sight of the children returning to school.

“This is the most fun thing I’ve done in 6 months,” Witty said in his report to the Board Thursday night. “I take my hat off to every single staff member. This has been an amazing challenge of organization and structure.”

On Wednesday, Witty visited Brooklyn Primary School, which serves Grades 1-3; South Baker Intermediate School, Grades 4-6; Haines School, preschool through Grade 6; Keating School, preschool through Grade 6 (no third-graders are enrolled at the 20-student school at this time); Eagle Cap Junior and Senior High School; and the Baker Early Learning Center.

As part of the celebration during the Board meeting, two elementary school students, Hayden Churchfield of Keating and Fidel Ochoa of South Baker Intermediate, were honored from their homes as the District’s “Promise Students of the Month” during the livestreamed meeting. They were honored by their teachers and principals for their dedication to learning and for serving as positive role models for other students.

Middle school, high school plans

Principals Skye Flanagan of Baker Middle School and Greg Mitchell of Baker High School spoke about considerations and roadblocks to having their students return to classrooms.

The 266 middle schoolers and 402 high school students will be continuing their studies Monday through Thursday in comprehensive distance learning classes for the foreseeable future.

While Baker County’s COVID-19 case numbers are below state standards, returning the older students to class is a bigger challenge because the state also limits student cohorts to contact with no more than 50 people per week.

That number would be difficult to meet for the older students who rotate from room to room for different classes throughout the day.

Witty said he will be meeting with state officials and others next week to continue discussions about increasing that number to at least 100 people per week, which would make the return to in-person classes easier to achieve.

In the meantime, Flanagan and Mitchell will be drafting proposals designed to return their students to in-person classes for as much time as possible based on discussions with administrators, other staff members and families. They will present their proposal to the Board at its Nov. 19 meeting.

“We’re excited about the prospect of in-person opportunities,” Flanagan said, while noting that there are multiple challenges to bringing the older students back to their schools.

The transportation issue alone is “a logistical nightmare, for sure,” he said.

Bus schedules are continuing to be ironed out for elementary students, Witty said, with the hope of determining how many students will require daily busing by the end of next week.

Witty said every employee in the transportation department is driving a bus and all buses are on the road daily in order to provide the required 3-foot distance between passengers who are not in the same family.

The District is considering hiring Community Connection vehicles if necessary.

“These are costs,” Witty said. “But our primary goal is to get our students in the classrooms safely.”

Meal service is another consideration that must be worked out along with providing equal access to programs for all students throughout the District.

While the administrators agreed that some students do well with online instruction, they said the majority make better progress in person where they can develop a bond not only with their teachers, but also with their classmates.

Some ideas being considered for the future include a hybrid model that would return student cohort groups to in-person classes one day a week.

Limited in-person sessions, which already are taking place, could be expanded for at-risk students, participants in career-technical education classes that require hands-on learning and lab-based classes.

Other considerations might include student attendance on partial days and office hours for enrichment and intervention sessions.

“We’ll be presenting models and opening up the discussion with staff and reaching out to stakeholders and parent groups to see what’s going to work for them,” Flanagan said.

Plans will be modified based on the feedback received and then presented to the Board for its consideration.

Flanagan and Mitchell noted that attendance in the online program is going well for the most part, although online learning — even with the improved technology purchased by the District earlier in the year — remains an obstacle for some students and staff.

“Presence in a Zoom meeting doesn’t necessarily lend itself to academic achievement,” Flanagan said.

And the Zoom sessions aren’t always a good substitute for in-person classrooms when it comes to student interaction and collaboration, Mitchell said.

Accountability also is a concern.

For many students oversight at home is a problem because of parent work schedules. As a result, in some cases assignments necessary for earning credits and progressing toward graduation are not being completed, Mitchell said.

The state has not relaxed any expectations for high school students, who still must earn 24 credits to graduate, he added.

“Seniors will be required to have 24 credits in all of the traditional content areas,” he said.

Both principals praised their staffs for the work they have done since online classes resumed with the new school year on Sept. 8.

“The staff is doing a phenomenal job,” Mitchell said. “But there’s no real adequate substitute to having kids in person and building relationships.”

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