After more than a year of school being fully online or only partly in-person, thousands of students in Bend-La Pine and Redmond school districts will soon return to full-time, in-person classes five days a week.
This change — which only became possible after the Oregon Department of Education shrunk the mandatory 6-feet social distancing rule for students to 3 feet in late March — is good news to educators in Central Oregon’s two largest school districts.
“I’ve got a great class — they’re super excited to be back,” said Carrie Price, a fourth grade teacher at Juniper Elementary School in northeast Bend. “This is what they need.”
But transitioning the majority of students — grades 4-12 in Bend-La Pine, grades 6-12 in Redmond — from part-online to full-time classroom settings isn’t as simple as moving desks closer together.
Completely shifting the logistics of school operations in the middle of the school year is difficult but worth it to get all students back full time, said Redmond Superintendent Charan Cline.
“We know this is good for kids, and frankly it’s good for our staff,” Cline said. “It’s just that it takes time to make the switch.”
In both school districts, younger students — grades K-3 in Bend-La Pine and all elementary students in Redmond — have attended school full time for more than a month after schools began to reopen earlier this year.
In Bend-La Pine, students in grades 4-12 have attended in-person school twice a week, with the other three days learning entirely online.
Fourth and fifth graders will return to in-person school first, on Monday. All elementary students had Thursday and Friday off last week, so staff could prep classrooms and move equipment to be prepared for their return.
“Having that extra time today and tomorrow to (make the transition) is really helpful,” Juniper Elementary principal Dan Wolnick said Thursday. “It’s almost like opening up in the fall.”
Secondary students in Bend-La Pine will start five-day-a-week school again April 12. Middle and high schoolers will have no school this upcoming Wednesday so staffers can prep their classrooms that day.
In Redmond, middle school students are on the same schedule as older Bend-La Pine students: two full days a week. High schoolers attend class four days a week — but only for three hours a day, with one group in the morning and another in the afternoon.
All Redmond secondary students will return to full-time class April 19.
Price, the fourth grade teacher at Juniper Elementary, said she’s thrilled to have all her students in front of her at once. But she worries some of them might not have the stamina to focus on school for five full days a week, since they haven’t had to do so since March 2020.
“I think the kids, some of them, have slipped into some patterns of school being somewhat optional on their home days,” Price said. “We just have to trigger those memories about how to be at school.”
Another major hurdle for returning to full-time school is lunch. Although distancing in classrooms can shrink to 3 feet — which is what allows for the end of hybrid school — the state dictates that students must be 6 feet apart during lunch, because they take off their face masks.
That means some students, many of whom have eaten in their 6-feet-apart classroom desks during hybrid school, will have to move to different spaces after desks are moved closer together.
Redmond school leaders plan to put some students back in the cafeteria for lunch — which could be tricky, as some schools have used the cafeteria for storage space. For example, Elton Gregory Middle School’s cafeteria tables are covered with football equipment, according to district spokesperson Sheila Miller.
At Juniper Elementary in Bend — which consists of multiple separate buildings — teachers are encouraged to use the many outdoor spaces around the school grounds for lunch to spread out, said Wolnick. There are also spare, vacant classrooms students can be moved into to safely eat, he said.
“We just have to be creative in how we’re doing (lunch),” Wolnick said.
Students in Bend and Redmond had mixed reactions to returning full time to school.
Katrina Settles and Steven Lazo — a junior and senior at Redmond High School, respectively — both said their morning half-days made it easier to work their part-time jobs.
“Going to school full time, I’d have to work really late,” said Katrina, 16. “I’m kind of dreading it.”
Other Redmond High School students, like sophomore Dante Leonard, said full days would make it easier for them to focus on school.
“When you’re just at home, you don’t have that motivation to do your work,” said Dante, 15. “That’s why so many kids are failing their classes.”
Fellow Redmond sophomore Gavin Amos agreed.
“I enjoy the free time after school and only having (school) a couple hours each day,” said Gavin, 15. “But it’s just not practical or easy to keep up with everything.”
Redmond sophomore Tate Waldbillig said he was concerned 3 feet of distance between students wasn’t effective social distancing.
“It’s just going to be us sitting next to each other,” said Tate, 16. “I don’t think it’s going to go that great.”
Olyvia King, a seventh grader at Pilot Butte Middle School in Bend, was worried about COVID-19 spreading with more time in school. Olyvia also wasn’t looking forward to mingling with fellow students all week.
“I don’t really mind hybrid (school), just because it gives me more time to not interact with people because I don’t like social interaction that much,” said Olyvia, 13.
Jesse Chase, a sixth grader at Pilot Butte, said he was nervous that more days of in-person school would mean a larger workload.
“It’s already stressful with two days a week … (five) days is going to be even more stressful with more work,” said Jesse, 12. “It’s going to be harder to sleep.”