The Forest Grove High School. Photo: Brenda Schaffer

Forest Grove High School will pause in-person learning, switching to online learning in the face of teacher absences due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The pause will last from Tuesday, January 11 to Friday, January 21. The hope is that the school will reconvene in-person instruction on Monday, January 24.  On Tuesday, January 11, there will be no instruction for students grades 9 to 12; high school teachers will instead use the day to set up for remote learning. 

According to Forest Grove School District Superintendent Dave Parker, 18% of the school’s staff are absent, and almost one-third—32%— of Forest Grove High School’s students, drawn from Forest Grove, Cornelius, Gales Creek, Dilley, and other communities, are out sick. 

No other schools will close their doors at this time, Parker said in a statement Monday afternoon

“To be clear, our decision to pause in-person is because we do not have enough staff to safely run the high school at this time,” Parker said.

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During a regularly scheduled school board meeting held Monday evening, Parker went directly to the challenges facing the district. 

Asked to go over that month’s correspondence and celebrations, a traditional opening part of the board’s agenda, Parker demurred, after noting there were none.  

“We’ve got kind of bigger news to talk about,” he said during the meeting.

In an update largely covering postponements at the high school, FGSD School Board Student Representative Sonja Postma discussed the impact the omicron surge was having on students..  “Basically, everyone was just kind of really stressed out about COVID,” Postma, appointed to the role in September 2021, said. 

“There are people who weren’t sick, and they just weren’t going to school because they were scared. But I think that people are definitely relieved with going back to online for the next couple of weeks.” 

Nearly one-third of the student body being absent couldn’t stave off a similar trend in those employed there. 

As cases began to rocket upward in Oregon, the district began to lose staff due to COVID-19 cases. 

“Over the past several days, our staff has worked diligently to cover the mounting number of staff who are absent due to illness. To this point we have covered absences and kept students in classrooms. We have utilized all available substitutes and staff members in the buildings and the district office,” a statement attributed to Parker read. 

During Monday’s school board meeting, which can be viewed online, Parker gave the latest update on the district’s efforts to grapple with the spike in cases. 

“We’re struggling to manage the surge right now,” Parker said. Around 65 staff and around 300 students across the district had COVID-19, according to Parker. 

Neil Armstrong Middle School was another school facing staffing challenges, Parker said. At that school, 7% of staff and 27% of students were absent Monday.

In the end, the decision was made to pause in-person learning at Forest Grove High School only.

“What we’re currently doing isn’t sustainable,” Parker said.

He described efforts to push educators and staff into different roles to try to cover gaps in staffing, a move that still left the high school with 23 unfilled absences. 

Counselors, district office staff, and Parker himself have found themselves stepping into new roles as illnesses mount. 

One benefit of closing the high school, Parker said, is that substitute teachers that were filling in at the high school can be shunted to different schools across the district to cover losses there, where in-person learning is still ongoing. 

“We’ll evaluate each day, we’ll meet and kind of evaluate where we’re at with our subs, and figure out if this needs to be expanded, or whether it doesn’t. That’s our hope, that we can weather this by doing this,” Parker said. 

Parker noted that current estimates of the current coronavirus surge project case numbers to drop toward the end of January. 

High school students can pick up a cold lunch starting Wednesday, January 12 from Harvey Clarke Elementary School or Echo Shaw Elementary School between 10:30 and 11 a.m. each school day during the school’s closure. Students who need a lunch are asked to knock on the exterior door closest to the cafeteria.

Athletics at the high school are also paused, albeit for a shorter time. 

All athletics will be paused January 11 and 12, with practices only resuming January 13 through 15. Competitions are expected to resume January 17. “Our goal is to reschedule as many of our contests as possible in the weeks ahead,” the district said.