A group of Bend high school students were confused and concerned about Bend-La Pine Schools’ reopening plan, which was unveiled Jan. 7. They felt that student voices weren’t being considered in the conversation about reopening schools after nearly a year of remote learning due to COVID-19.
So in response, 10 students from four Bend high schools — Summit, Mountain View, Bend High and Realms — created the Bend-La Pine Schools Student Union last week. The group posted a critical statement about reopening on Instagram Thursday, and it plans to send the Bend-La Pine School Board a list of reopening demands .
“We feel that in the district’s eagerness to return to normalcy, they have sidelined important concerns of safety,” the group wrote in their statement.
Jace Bracelin — a Summit High junior who founded the group — said Bend-La Pine’s reopening plan is too vague, and students and families don’t have enough details to choose between in-person learning or staying in online distance learning.
“This is a decision of life or death for a lot of immunocompromised students, and they need to know if returning is going to be safe, or not safe,” Bracelin, 17, told The Bulletin. “And with the amount of details with the district has released right now, we can’t quite know.”
Middle and high school students in the district are scheduled to return Feb. 8 to in-person classes — unless they chose distance learning or Bend-La Pine Schools Online. Bracelin said the union’s goal isn’t necessarily to push back that date, unlike groups of teachers at Bend High and Summit who had asked for that.
“In a perfect world, we would like a postponement of reopening until vaccinations are open to the general public, and teachers are able to get both shots,” Bracelin said. “But we understand that’s probably not going to happen.”
However, the Redmond School District did just that Friday afternoon, delaying its reopening from Feb. 2 to Feb. 22.
The Student Union’s list of demands had not been finalized yet as of Friday afternoon, Bracelin said. This is because the teens are taking the time to ensure they’re presenting compelling and fact-based arguments to school leaders, with corresponding potential solutions, he said.
“It’s a waste of both our times to point out problems and not try to fix them,” Bracelin said.
The group has no intention of being antagonistic with district leadership, Bracelin said.
“I don’t want any of this to look like we think the school district is evil, or acting with malicious intent,” Bracelin said. “We just think the plan of reopening, as it is right now, is not good enough for us to return with a peace of mind.”
Bend High senior Jade Jager, a member of the student union, said she wants to push the district to strictly enforce COVID-19 rules such as mask wearing. And if a student tests positive for COVID-19, she wants the entire school to do distance learning for two weeks minimum, she said.
If a student tests positive, the state department of education recommends sending home all other students who have direct contact with that student.
Jager also plans to give the school board the results of her online petition, posted Jan. 7, which asked Bend-La Pine Schools to hold off on reopening until students and staff can be vaccinated. As of Friday afternoon, nearly 2,100 people had signed the petition.
“Hopefully that should show the district the public distaste for their plans,” Jager, 17, told The Bulletin.
Another member of the group, Bend High junior Maxwell Friedman, said he was upset that students and staff wouldn’t have their temperatures screened before entering the building every day. He’s also worried about enforcing social distancing in the cramped hallways of Bend High.
But in general, Friedman said he’s confused why schools are reopening now, when local COVID-19 case counts are much higher than they were in the spring, when schools initially closed.
“To expect us to go back to normal, just because a new year rolled around but circumstances regarding the coronavirus haven’t changed at all, is a bit confusing and frustrating,” Friedman, 17, said.
Friedman said the union plans to stick around after COVID-19, so students can continue to have a say in Bend-La Pine Schools.
“I definitely see Bend-La Pine Schools Student Union existing in the future, and I’m excited to see what would come from it,” he said.
Bracelin emphasized that the student union has no affiliation or connection to the Bend Education Association, Bend-La Pine’s teachers’ union.
In a statement to The Bulletin, Carrie Douglass, chair of the Bend-La Pine School Board, said the board appreciates hearing from students but defended the district’s reopening plan.
“I believe we have met or exceeded all safety guidelines, requirements and recommendations and that we have mitigated the risk in all possible ways,” she wrote. “If the students have additional ideas that we can implement, we will certainly consider them.”
Lora Nordquist, superintendent of Bend-La Pine Schools, did not respond when asked for comment.