In a semester of distance learning and wildfire evacuations, Estacada students have had to navigate different ways of attending class and educators to find new ways to support them — including showing up on their doorsteps.
Since October, officials in this rural district southeast of Portland have sent out multiple messages encouraging students to attend class and explaining to parents what “attending” means during this unusual year.
“It’s not punitive,” said Maggie Kelly, Estacada School District’s director of communications. “We want to come alongside you if your student is not attending.”
As the district’s 1,800 students learn from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of Oregon’s devastating wildfires, they need to communicate with their teacher and participate in at least one online activity to be marked present in class.
Students don’t need to log onto classes while they are taking place but must do so within 24 hours of the end of class to be considered in attendance.
As with other schools surveyed by Pamplin Media Group, attendance has dropped this year.
At the two elementary schools, about 91% of students are attending regularly, compared to roughly 94% last year. At Estacada Middle School, 90% are regularly attending, compared to 93% last year. As with other districts surveyed, the biggest drop is at the high school level, where 88% are regularly attending, compared to 93% last year.
Kelly said attendance was impacted by the Riverside and Dowty Road fires in September, during which 12 students lost their homes and many others had to evacuate.
District expands home visits
In all districts, particularly small ones, school events offer a natural time for staff to connect with parents. But with sporting events, concerts and other activities canceled, Estacada officials are ramping up home visits, which previously were limited to elementary school families.
“It was one tool in our toolkit for students who were struggling to get on campus,” Kelly said. “They’re even more vital during this time.”
Trevor Syring, vice principal at both of Estacada’s elementary schools, said 50 families received home visits this year. “Before, we could see parents when they dropped off or picked up students or at events,” he said. “Now, we’re not seeing them, so we’re doing more visits and phone calls.”
Although Syring and his colleagues wear face masks and remain 6 feet apart, they say the in-person outreach is still effective.
“It’s an opportunity to build rapport and relationships,” Syring said. “We’re here to serve them however they need. It’s an encouragement. It’s great for us to be able to say ‘hi’ to families.”
One common topic of conversation is helping younger students build up the stamina to participate in online classes for longer periods of time.
“Once the kids slowly build up, it seems to work,” he said. “We tell them to try to do a little more Zoom each day. Once they get on and see their teacher and classmates, they’re more likely to get on again.”
Syring estimated that half of elementary students who received a home visit increased their attendance.
Nonprofits join outreach effort
At Estacada High School, counselors Steven Christiansen and Cindy Babikoff conducted home visits for the first time this semester.
“Elementary schools do it more often, but at the high school level, I tell counselors in other districts and (they say), ‘Wow,’” he said.
Babikoff and Christiansen visited about 50 students each and were joined by representatives from Todos Juntos and AntFarm, nonprofit organizations offering support for students.
“We really focused on freshmen for the most part, because those are the kids we haven’t met,” Babikoff said.
Christiansen said some, but not all, high school students seemed more engaged after the visits. But he still views them as an important way to cultivate relationships.
“It’s been very well-received. I haven’t had any parent or student who has seemed like they didn’t want us there,” Babikoff said. “The way we’ve approached it is, we’re here to check on you and we want to know how you’re doing.”
Students and families are asked if they have any questions and if they feel like they’re getting all of the information they need.
“A lot of times we’ve been able to clear up some lingering questions,” Babikoff said.
Christiansen said many students have shared that they miss in-person learning.
“They all want to be back at school,” he said. “By and large, they usually tell us, ‘I know I’m behind. I want to try to catch up.’”
Counselors also help students connect with teachers during class or office hours.
Compared to the school district’s sudden shift to distance learning last spring, both Babikoff and Christiansen have noticed an increase in students visiting during their own office hours.
“This fall, we’ve seen much more participation from students willing to meet with you on Zoom,” Babikoff said, adding that online learning requires more initiative on the student’s part.
Whether working with families at the elementary or high school levels, those involved with the home visits agree that Estacada’s close-knit community is beneficial during distance learning.
“Cindy and I know three-fourths of the student body. The only ones we haven’t met officially are the freshmen,” Christiansen said. “It’s definitely an advantage that I feel we have as counselors.”
Syring agrees that the personal connections common in rural districts are a huge asset.
“Everybody understands each other,” he said, “and we understand what we’re going through and how we’re all navigating through this time.”
This article is adapted from a longer article published by the Estacada News. It is part of a collaborative reporting project called Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID. It includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore News/Pamplin Media Group, and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.
Lead photo: Estacada students, who started the school year in-class, are participating in comprehensive distance learning until schools are able to reopen in a hybrid model. During distance learning, staff have expanded home visits to students in upper grades. PMG file photo