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The first day of school for all St. Helens School District (SHSD) students – including those enrolled only in the St. Helens Virtual Academy – is Wednesday, Sept. 16. This year, school is starting not in the classrooms, but virtually, due to COVID-19 precautions.

Back To School

Staff at Columbia City Elementary School work on Comprehensive Distance Learning Plans for the upcoming school year.

Those precautions involve Comprehensive Distance Learning, the label given to learning virtually, at home. The learning style will be used across the district’s seven schools and 2,554 students – 619 in St. Helens Virtual Academy (SHVA), 146 in Columbia City Elementary, 276 in Lewis & Clark Elementary, 356 in McBride Elementary, 478 in St. Helens Middle School, 624 in St. Helens High School and 55 in Plymouth High School.

Below are guidelines from SHSD to students and families from school principals compiled by SHSD Community Relations Specialist Stacey Mendoza.

Elementary School

For SHSD elementary schools, students and staff will arrive virtually the first day of school for their daily Morning Meeting. According to a message from elementary school principals, the Morning Meeting is a strategy learned from Responsive Classroom training.

“A Morning Meeting has a particular goal of building community, trust, cohesion and preparation for the day ahead. During the Morning Meeting, students will greet each other by name, learn a little about their classmates and teacher, and set their focus for the day,” the message reads.

When the Morning Meeting is done, students will be allowed to take a short time away from the computer and take a break to refresh so they are ready to start their first lesson of the day.

“Elementary students will have two educational sessions, with a break for lunch and recess, per day that will last up to 2 hours total,” the message states.

During instructional time, teachers introduce new learning, assess current understanding, and provide small group and individual support. Instructional assistants will also be on hand for small group work.

“Our synchronous learning day will end with a Closing Circle and Exit Ticket. Again, these are essential structures we use in elementary to solidify new learning, quickly fix misconceptions, and finish our learning community work in a positive and supportive way,” the message states.

When the synchronous part of the day is over, students will be able to join music or PE class and complete independent work assigned during the day, according to the message.

“Although we will not be working in our brick and mortar classrooms, for now, our virtual classrooms will have all of the crucial features of a robust learning environment: community, rigor, support, engagement, and, most importantly, joy,” the message states.

Middle School

SHSD middle schoolers will also be in for a different beginning to the school year.

“Initially, our classes will focus on learning how to be responsible and effective distance learners,” the message states. “Teachers will start slow in the first week, being mindful to coach students through the login process, operating in a digital classroom, Zoom etiquette, and all the unique aspects of being involved in a distance-learning program.”

A few weeks later, school will move into more of a routine, according to the message.

“They will be learning new content and developing skills that will be valuable in their future endeavors. There will be successful moments and social struggles during distance learning just as we experience when we are in our school buildings. Our teachers and staff at St. Helens Middle School will be there to guide students and families through it all,” the message states.

St. Helens High School

Students who attend St. Helens High School will log into ClassLink and select Canvas to access their courses at 8 a.m. the first day of school.

“Students who are in Cohort A will attend live Zoom class meetings during the first 30 minutes of each class following our Lunch 1 bell schedule. Students in Cohort B will complete classroom assignments online the first day and will have their first Zoom meetings on Thursday, September 17,” the message states.

In addition, SHHS Leadership students have pre-recorded their Welcome Back Assembly and 9th Grade Assembly in order to encourage a start to the school year with school spirit.

“Links to these assemblies will be in student’s 1st period Canvas courses on Wednesday,” the message states.

Plymouth High School

For Plymouth High School Students, the school operates on a quarter system, and during the first quarter, there will be Comprehensive Distance Learning within their Hybrid Plan until it is safe for students to return to school.

“Our students will attend regularly scheduled online classes every day, Monday through Thursday. Each day will have four 60-minute teacher-facilitated classes using Zoom as our platform,” the message states.

Fridays will be reserved for professional development activities for teachers, as well as collaborative staff meetings, updating grades and preparing classes for the coming week, according to the message from the school district.

“While teachers are engaged, students will be given the opportunity to catch up on an assignment from the week, work on a special project or learning activity assigned by their teacher,” the message states.

Counseling staff will also be regularly checking in with students.

St. Helens Virtual Academy

Those who attend St. Helens Virtual Academy (SHVA) will have the most flexible schedule of all students.

“With no rigid bell schedule, one student might start school early, another student may sleep later, while a high school student might even work a job during the day and start school in the afternoon,” the message states.

The schedule allows for students to study subjects in any order and work at a pace that works best for them, the message states.

“Even though students will be working through an established curriculum, parents will be their coach. They are there to help their child with their lessons, guiding them through the activities, helping to reinforce concepts, adding in bits of information, and answering questions as they rise,” the message states.

Students in the elementary years will need more help and guidance from parents, and then eventually learn to be more independent, the message states.

General Expectations

School will look very different in the fall than it did in the spring of this year.

“In the spring, school districts were directed to provide pass no/pass grading and be flexible with attendance,” the message from the school district states. “The reasoning was schools and families did not have time to prepare for distance learning on such a short notice and Oregon Department of Education (ODE) did not want adult unpreparedness to impact students.”

That will change this fall. According to the message, there will be attendance requirements and regular grading. Regular attendance will be required in either the Hybrid or SHVA. Attendance will be seen by participating in a video class, communication from the student to teacher via chat, text message or email, a phone call with the student, posting completed coursework to a learning management system, and turning in completed coursework on a given day.

“When there is no evidence of student interaction during a 24-hour period surrounding a scheduled school day as described, students are reported as absent,” the message states.

Students and parents can expect the school day to look like a regular school day as much as that is possible, including live scheduled lessons and group discussions as well as pre-recorded lessons and activities.

Digital tools will make that all possible. All lessons, activities and communication will be on a single site hosted by a program called Canvas. Students have also been supplied with Chromebooks.

Challenges

This year will come with its fair share of challenges as well. For example, the message states, it is possible not all students have been reached with the appropriate technology and internet access.

“We have supplied Chromebooks and set up digital hotspots throughout the community, yet we know we are not reaching all children. We are finalizing agreements with Comcast and Verizon to provide internet or personal Wi-Fi hotspots for those that do not have internet access, but equipment is backlogged,” the message states.

To combat the problem, the school district plans to provide the services free or at a reduced rate to those that qualify. There still might be families that live beyond the reach of those measures, and in that case, the message states, the district will provide thumb drives or other digital media that can be transferred without the use of the internet.

Technology is not the only challenge.

“Another challenge we have faced as a district is the rate of change that has come with the pandemic. As the Oregon Department of Education adjusts to changing requirements and directives from Public Health and the Governor’s Office, we are forced to then adjust our school plans,” the message states.

Communication

To communicate with students and families, the district will employ various measures, from newsletters, to direct communication from students’ teachers, to district emails and press releases.

The superintendent will give updates at every board meeting on the district’s reopening status.

Determining whether or not to reopen schools is especially complex given St. Helens’ situation, according to the district message.

“We in Columbia County are considered rural, but Southern Columbia County’s proximity to the Portland Metro area essentially makes the St. Helens School District a suburban school district,” SHSD Superintendent Scot Stockwell said.

“With 80% of our families commuting to the Portland Metro area for work and 40% of our teachers commuting from the Portland Metro area to teach, the St. Helens School District must also monitor and meet the metric requirements for Multnomah and Washington Counties to open schools to in person instruction,” Stockwell said.

Final words

The Chronicle also asked district officials to provide some last thoughts before school begins again.

“From our custodians and nutrition service staff to teachers and administrators, we all want nothing more than for school to resume as normal with children filling our schools and back to what we are all familiar with when we think of school,” the message states.

According to the district, staff have worked hard to design the best possible instructional program for students by looking at national models and best practices.

“Yet we know in our hearts that it isn’t what we believe is best,” the message states. “We believe in face-to-face instruction where we can nurture, teach and care for kids. Our staff have all been trained and are very skilled in this type of teaching and learning.”

The message also states that the year will be a learning experience; “School this year is all new to everyone, teachers and students alike, and there are going to be glitches and hiccups as we learn and grow together, yet before long we’ll all be running.”

For more information, contact the St. Helens School District at 503-307-3085.

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