It’s week two of the return to a hybrid in-person instruction at St. Helens High School, and despite the ups and downs of the county's pandemic risk classifications, students, teachers and staff are moving forward.
“I am glad to be going back in person,” St. Helens High School Social studies teacher Keith Meeuwsen said. “It is hard to match the atmosphere in the room compared to online. Kids participate more, try more and learn more.”
Meeuwsen said as the at-home-learning continued due to the pandemic restrictions, there was less student participation.
They were doing less work and just plain struggling with school,” he said. “By going back we can get them back into a rhythm and get them going again.”
Meeuwsen said he is designing his classes with efforts to connect each student to the assignments.
“I try to do a lot of discussion and participation activities in my classes,” he said. “I think that is what has been missing and what has made school a lot less fun for kids.”
Why in-person is better
St. Helens High School Principal Katy Wagner said the return to in-person instruction is critical to the educational success of each student.
“Going back in-person feels like a cloud has been lifted,” Wagner said. “Learning is profoundly social and being able to learn together in the same physical space has so many benefits - socially, emotionally, and academically.”
Wagner said over the past year with the pandemic restrictions, the physical closure has been a true learning experience.
“We have learned about our own needs for connection, gained resilience, developed as professionals by learning new strategies, technology platforms, and ways to support all students who may have previously struggled in the ‘“traditional” model,”’ she said. “Now, it is time for more growth to apply our new learning back to the in-person model - which will make it even better than before.”
According to Wagner, even though there have been frequent pandemic health and safety information changes, state and county health and education officials have continued to provide important details to the school district.
“I have been impressed by the timeliness of the guidance and accessibility of our leaders,” she said. “There isn’t a blueprint for how to lead during a pandemic, and Oregon has demonstrated outstanding leadership for education given the circumstances.”
Wagner said public schools have a duty - a moral and ethical obligation - to educate all students.
“Each student’s situation is unique and some families and students have struggled throughout,” she said. “Mental health has been a major concern due to the changing routines and uncertainty. Motivation can be negatively impacted by learned helplessness, brought on by a negative and uncontrollable situation. Students who may not have strong support systems or already struggle with motivation, self-worth, sense of belonging, and self-compassion often need that in-person interaction to find success.”
Wagner said returning for the last two months of school could be the difference between a student dropping out of high school or finishing high school strong and with an optimism for the future.
“We won’t give up on our students who need us the most,” she said.
Wagner described the high school’s first period of each day as Enrichment, which allows for learning important school skills as the students return to in-person in addition to social-emotional activities, such as Community Circles.
“This will allow students to process their experiences in a safe environment, feel welcomed, and develop a sense of belonging in our school community,” Wagner said.
Wagner said to follow the state’s pandemic health and safety guidelines, all staff and students complete their health screening at home before arriving at school, which helps the school track attendance and see any health patterns that may develop.
“All staff and students are expected to wear approved masks at all times,” she said. “Nearly all of our classrooms are still following the 6-foot distance guidance and we have moved to a two-lunch schedule in two different common eating areas to reduce exposure while masks are off.”