With School Year Looming, Key Questions Remain Unanswered

Hermiston School Superintendent Dr. Tricia Mooney speaks to parents and staff Wednesday evening about the upcoming school year. (Photo by Michael Kane)

With just about one month before school starts, there remains far more questions than answers when it comes to how the year will play out.

The Hermiston School District (HSD) held a community meeting Wednesday evening at Armand Larive Middle School to shed what little light there currently is regarding guidance from the county health department and the state education department.

Will face masks be required for staff and students? What are the social distancing recommendations? What are the protocols for a positive test case? How will sports be impacted? What contingency plans are in place for students who must be quarantined? Will there be enough staff or substitute teachers?

HSD Superintendent Dr. Tricia Mooney said the answers to many of those questions have yet to be determined.

There currently is not a plan in place for what to do with students who need to be quarantined due to either a positive COVID-19 test or having come in contact with someone with the virus. Mooney said there may be cases where a student must quarantine for 14-24 days. How those students will keep up with their school work has yet to be determined.

Mooney said a plan will be developed once teachers return to work – about one week prior to the start of the school year. Parents in the audience voiced concern that the schedule doesn’t give enough time to work out and implement a contingency plan. Some asked if it would possible to ask the teachers to return to work early to plan ahead.

Mooney said the district is bound by its employees’ contact, adding that staff need their break as well in order to come back health and ready for what is expected to be another challenging school year.

When asked if the school year could be moved back a week or so, Mooney said that would have to be a school board decision.

As far as masks are concerned, the Center for Disease Control and the Oregon Health Authority both recommend universal mask wearing indoors regardless of vaccination status. Mooney said the Oregon Department of Education has yet to issue any guidance.

“The next round of updates could come Monday or Tuesday,” Mooney said.

This year, students will be required to maintain a distance of at least three feet, while staff will be required to maintain a distance of at least six feet.

When it comes to athletics, the Umatilla County Health Department has said that indoor contact sports such as wrestling in basketball were the main source of spread this past school year. It is encouraging a two-week pause in practices and games following a positive test.

The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, the conference that Hermiston High School is in, has yet to make its final decisions, but has indicated that athletes may be able play without masks if weekly tests are negative. Vaccinated athletes could also be exempt from wearing masks or being tested.

Parents in the audience wanted to know if there was data indicating case outbreaks among specific sports. Mooney said she didn’t know the specific data, but that the school district would follow whatever rules are put in place.

Mooney acknowledged the frustration among the parents.

“This has been hard for our kids, hard for our parents and hard for our staff,” she said. “I know we are all doing the best we can.”