CitySpeak Forum: Corvallis Schools and the Pandemic

The most recent CitySpeak Forum hosted by The Advocate spoke with Corvallis School Board Chairman Sami Al-Abdrabbuh and Corvallis School District Superintendent Ryan Noss. The pair talked about education and student social dynamics under the coronavirus pandemic and took questions from the public.

Fall Classes Online 

This past month, the school district announced a hybrid model for reopening in fall. For at least the first six weeks, classes will be conducted remotely, with a re-evaluation of the pandemic conditions expected at the end of that period. Al-Abdrabbuh and Noss reflected on how the digital environment could impact learning and socialization for the estimated 6,700 students in the Corvallis School District.  

Al-Abdrabbuh cited the board’s five-year learning goals, a set of five objectives that will help guide Noss and his team as they weigh the dangers of COVID-19 against the need to educate the children of the community. The goals include student achievement, equitable systems, real-world learning, health and wellness, and long-range facility planning.  

“The pandemic is exacerbating the achievement gap between those students who have been fortunate and privileged before and those who are not,” Al-Abdrabbuh said. “We want to make sure as we adapt, we continue to be committed to equity … most importantly to make sure we’re paying attention to racial justice and that we’re intentional about it.” 

What Will Be Different 

Noss cited a conservative decision-making process in determining if students would be on campus this fall. He said instruction will look different from the hastily assembled program that was put in place this past spring as the coronavirus outbreak spread across the nation, noting some students faced challenges to accessing school services as everything went remote. Noss also said there would be focus on building student-teacher relationships, which can be difficult in remote settings. 

For students with special needs, individualized education plans guiding them to graduation are common. Noss said those plans will become even more individualized as students work through which aspects of remote and hybrid learning are helpful, and which need modification because they create educational barriers.  

What’s for Lunch? 

Schools will be supplying breakfast and lunch to the majority of young people in the area five days a week, as the question of how to feed kids who aren’t going to campus is at the top of many lists. In Corvallis, Noss said a strong tie between the community and the schools translated to donations that go to aiding families with food boxes, assisting with internet accessm and even helping with the bills. In the summertime, a number of food pick-up sites were established to let students get breakfast, lunch, and dinner five days a week. 

Al-Abdrabbuh applauded the community and the local nonprofit sector for the ongoing support of Corvallis schools. He highlighted the Corvallis Schools Foundation for stepping up in the time of need, saying those who would like to donate funds should consider that organization.  

“They’re helping the school district with important work, sheltering kids, giving them the food and supplies they need, and beyond,” he said. 

Log-on Learning 

Many school districts are struggling with internet connectivity, trying to reach students who lack access for any number of reasons including where they live and their economic status. Al-Abdrabbuh likened broadband to a highway – if you don’t have access to it, you can’t interact with society. He urged the public to raise the issue with elected officials at all levels of government. 

Noss said Corvallis is fortunate to have internet devices for every student in the district. In March, when the pandemic sent many schools scrambling to find remote learning options. Corvallis families have received wireless hotspots when needed, and some schools have expanded Wi-Fi signals to allow for use in the parking lots.  

“Access to broadband is similar to any other infrastructure that we have,” Noss said. “In this day and age, it’s something that really is vital for all of our families.” 

Homeless Students 

Programs supporting Corvallis’ estimated 200 homeless students have continued through the summer. Liaisons maintain contact with families to offer resources, and at the school level each facility has a team that includes counselors, administrators, teachers, and mental health staff who are dedicated to monitoring the needs of homeless students. Noss said the systems the district already had in place, including those for homeless students, have made addressing changes under the pandemic much easier.  

“We’re committed to, given the promise of public education, giving kids the opportunity to grow regardless of the unfortunate circumstances they might be in,” Al-Abdrabbuh said. “That’s our duty. We have to make sure not to give up on any one of our students, no matter what.” 

What Happens to Childcare? 

Public schools also serve as childcare for millions of working families, but remote learning eliminates that option, leaving many wondering about childcare.  

Al-Abdrabbuh said with the resources it currently has, providing childcare is out of reach for the Corvallis School District. A question of using contingency funds was raised, but Al-Abdrabbuh cited upcoming budget shortfall expectations, saying the priority is on funding teaching staff to continue educating students. 

Budget Crunches Expected 

“We have to be ready for the worst,” Al-Abdrabbuh said. 

While nobody can say what will happen to school budgets as the state reels from a loss of revenue, a budget gap can be expected in the coming fiscal cycle. Al-Abdrabbuh said he’s grateful that the district has clear priorities in terms of funding, but in talks with legislators he has learned to be ready for the worst, not just next year, but for the next several years to come.  

“We have to stay focused on our priorities and make sure we don’t overspend right now,” he said. “Historically, the Corvallis School District has been fiscally conservative and responsible in a way where we have the reserves and contingency funds for … the most challenging days.” 

Holocaust History, People of Color in History 

Corvallis School District in the past has been criticized for not teaching about the role people of color hold in American history as well its Holocaust education approach. Noss said there has been a comprehensive review of the history curriculum. The ongoing review process began this past year and includes working with community members and parents of color. He added that more than 50 languages are spoken within the district, and a third of the school population is students of color. 

“It was really important to make those changes – they should have been made in the past,” Noss said. “We are looking at all the pieces of history and recognizing that it is not just the perspective of one group of people.” 

Al-Abdrabbuh recalled his experience living in Saudi Arabia as a religious minority, which gave him a unique insight to the difficulties students can face when the curriculum is not informed by equity and diversity.  

What’s Being Lost Online? 

Meeting remotely makes connecting with people harder. Without the in-person responses, who knows if anyone is understanding you? As a college teacher, Al-Abdrabbuh said he thinks a lot is going to be lost in online learning by those who don’t know about or don’t have support systems to overcome the inherent challenges involved. He’s also worried about the mental health impacts on students from the coronavirus pandemic, not just the effect on education. 

“How can we make sure that our students go out of this pandemic stronger than they entered it?” Al-Abdrabbuh said. “What matters is that you come out of this knowing how to be resilient in a situation where the community and industry and everything around you will be completely different.” 

Noss said he thinks about the kids whose special needs are met on-site, but who now have a new set of obstacles from remote learning. He thinks the friendships kids have, the activities and clubs that want to meet – a lot of things that are forced to change because of COVID-19. He recognizes the efforts of the district staff to serve students in these unprecedented times, but acknowledged that without face-to-face interactions, something valuable is lost.   

“Our kids are really sacrificing a lot in this pandemic,” Noss said.