A Cautious, Step-by-Step Approach in a Coastal Oregon District Gets Schools Through the 20-21 Academic Year with No COVID-19 Cases in Schools

Port Orford, Oregon. (Wikimedia Commons)

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The series, “Opening” was originally published in Betsy Ladyzhets’ newsletter, COVID-19 Data Dispatch, a weekly newsletter exploring the state of COVID-19 data in the United States.

In Port Orford, Oregon, it’s a quick walk from the elementary and middle school building to the town library—the two buildings are right down the street from each other. In fact, the town library and school are linked by more than geography, since the school district’s two libraries became part of the Port Orford library system in 2017. The town’s library system stepped in to assist the district in buying books, organizing the collection, and other management tasks.

Much like how town librarians stepped in to save the school libraries in 2017, they also provided crucial space, books, wifi, and activities to students during the pandemic. The school-library partnership exemplifies the close-knit community of the two small, coastal towns making up the Port Orford-Langlois School District.

District parents and other community members additionally stepped up to provide homemade face masks for teachers and staff. The district built up community trust and used a cautious, step-by-step reopening strategy to make it through the 2020-2021 school year with zero cases identified in school buildings.

The Port Orford-Langlois School District is the subject of the fourth profile in the COVID-19 Data Dispatch’s “Opening” series. Alongside four other school communities, we selected it because the majority of the district’s students returned to in-person learning during the 2020-2021 school year — and officials identified COVID-19 cases in under 5% of the student population. (According to the CDC, about 5% of school-aged children in the U.S. contracted COVID-19 between the start of the pandemic and early August 2021.)

Library partnership and community

Both of the towns in this Oregon school district are tiny. Port Orford has a population of about 1,000, and Langlois has an even smaller population of 135. The district is made up of two schools: a high school and a K-8 school, where class sizes tend to be under 20 students. The two schools have a total enrollment of about 200 students combined. Staffers at the district wear multiple hats — Krista Nieraeth, for instance, serves as principal for both schools.

In these two small towns, communication between school parents and administrators was direct — and personal. Nieraeth recalled how she often received information about students who needed to quarantine: “I would get a Facebook message [from a parent] at eight o’clock at night going, what do I do?” Some parents also called her personal cell number to ask questions or alert her to COVID-19 symptoms in their households, while district teachers had individual calls with parents before classes started. This level of direct communication reflected trust between the community and the district’s administration.

One example of community partnership was the district’s connection to the Port Orford Public Library, which manages the school district’s library system. Starting in fall 2020, the library hosted IT specialists and teachers from the school in one of the library’s conference rooms. Students were able to come get technological support or a bit of face-to-face homework help.

The library later dedicated more spaces for after-school homework help, allowing families to come in and utilize the free wifi. Both the library and school buildings also kept their wifi turned on, so that families could sit in their parking lots and use it from their cars; the library’s wifi was on 24/7. Similarly to Garrett County in Maryland, the geography of this rural district makes broadband access inaccessible for many families.

“The biggest feedback I had was a wish for longer hours,” Library Director Denise Willms said, when asked how district families responded to the library’s services. Due to low staffing, the library was unable to operate a full seven-days-a-week schedule. Willms additionally noted that the library does not have a great ventilation system or easily-openable windows — and unlike school districts across the country, she was unable to access a government grant for ventilation updates.

Librarians and district staff ultimately brought services from the library directly to students. The school libraries were unavailable for browsing (because they were temporarily used as large classrooms), so library staff and teachers coordinated book delivery directly to classrooms. Kari Hansen, the K-8 school’s library coordinator, recalled using gloves to handle the books and reading out story descriptions to students, so that they could learn about their options at a distance before making a reading choice.

The Port Orford youth services librarian, Cheryl Frances, and school staff also produced take-home activity kits for students. The library’s kits included literacy, dinosaurs, and other STEAM learning materials. Parents could pick these activity packs up at the library, and when extras were available, library staff took them over to the school. The kits served as a way to remind students that “the library is here,” Frances said.

Social studies, history, and economics teacher Phoebe Skinner observed that these take-home activities were very popular with students and parents alike. Since the kits had “everything you need” right in the package, she said, overwhelmed parents didn’t need to hunt down extra supplies or do any other additional labor. The district additionally ran its own virtual events, such as a movie night and bingo games.

Reflecting on the school-library partnership, Willms — the library director — said that her experience embodied: “students first, community first, ego second.” Principal Nieraeth similarly said that the library, along with churches and other community civic organizations, “really would help step up and ask us, ‘What do you need?’”

Betsy Ladyzhets is the founder and editor-in-chief of the COVID-19 Data Dispatch, a weekly newsletter exploring the state of COVID-19 data in the United States.

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