▶️ Jefferson Co. school officials push to reopen, citing learning inequalities

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By STEELE HAUGEN
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS

As the pandemic continues, many schools are struggling to deal with distance learning challenges. 

Officials from one Central Oregon school district said they have to overcome more obstacles than others.

“Just being able to access their education, it’s just really difficult,” Madras High School Principal Brian Crook said.

Crook added that Jefferson County’s biggest problem with distance learning is internet access in rural areas.

“While we’ve distributed almost a thousand hotspots, up over 900 now, that we’ve supplied to families, those are only effective if you are in an area with cell towers,” Ken Parshall, superintendent of Jefferson County 509-J School District, said.

Internet issues have affected students and teachers during classes held on video calls.

“Teachers want to be able to have those cameras on,” Shawn Darrow, a middle school teacher for the Jefferson County 509-J School District, said. “It’s just when we all have our cameras on it slows everything down.”

The 509-J School District is very large and Jefferson County school bus drivers travel the farthest in the entire state of Oregon.

Butch David, a parent of two students at Madras High School, lives in Simnasho north of Warm Springs.

He says it is a 35 miles drive and a 70 minute round trip to to get his kids to school.

“We have a lot of families that got four or five kids in the household and one hotspot, so it is tough for a lot of our families in Warm Springs here,” David said.

The high number of low-income households presents even more challenges.

“There’s a lot of poverty, a lot of struggle,” Darrow said. “Even before COVID, we were dealing with kids that were having a really rough time at home, struggling to make it at school. All these different things and now at home with the computer, it’s even tenfold.”

The school board recently sent a letter to Governor Brown asking her to reopen schools.

“The message to the governor is really just that we take this seriously,” 509-J School Board Vice-Chair Kevin Richards said. “We know that there’s challenges, but our kids are suffering and they learn best in person and we would like to have the choice now that we know more about the virus and the safety measures that are necessary.”

After several years of improved graduation rates, Crook hopes those numbers don’t fall because of the pandemic.

“We will recover from this, it may take a little while, but we will bounce back,” Crook said. “Our goal is to keep our graduation rate where it is or even increase over the next couple years, but it will be more of a challenge than it has been.”

The 509-J schools says that when in-person classes return, they will be as ready as they can be.

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