Oregon Achieves... Together!
A Message from the Director of the Oregon Department of Education, Colt Gill
Every year, the return to school brings a mix of excitement and nervousness. This fall, both feelings could be heightened as Oregon’s students return to full-time, in-person learning.
We know it’s critical that our schools implement health and safety protocols to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. And over the past few months, state education and health officials have worked to draft a resiliency framework for public school districts that shifts to a more traditional, local decision-making model. Districts must fulfill the requirement of informing their community about their safety protocols, following statewide quarantine and isolation protocols, mandating use of face coverings, and providing a process to support students who experience disability, but this new direction lets local communities make the health and safety decisions that serve students best. After more than a year of implementing physical distancing, cohorts, isolation protocols and other measures, schools have the necessary practice to mitigate COVID-19 and create a welcoming and inclusive learning environment for students and staff.
We know that in-person instruction, delivered safely, provides our children and families with the greatest access to an equitable education. Schools not only educate our kids, but also act as a center of services to students and families, offering nutritious meals, access to social-emotional and mental health supports, as well as physical health services.
Providing strong COVID-19 protocols is one imperative; however, it is also essential to help students and staff build relationships and make meaning of the challenging and sometimes traumatic last 18 months to set the foundation for the school year ahead.
Many schools already make the first day of school a celebration, with some literally rolling out red carpets or bringing in the marching band. But this year, we’re urging schools and school districts to designate the entire first full week of school as “Care and Connection Week.” The week is an opportunity for school leaders, staff, students and families to foster a sense of care, connection and community, as the first step to creating a healthy, welcoming, and strong community for the school year.
Many school staff already use “getting to know you” exercises and activities like greeting students at the classroom door each day. Some use art, music, movement, nature and other opportunities for students to express themselves. These and other activities can encourage students and staff to make meaning of their experience and build relationships and community.
This year, these kinds of activities and trust building exercises will prove more important and meaningful than any time in recent history, as the pandemic also had the impact of isolating many students from their peers and trusted adults outside their home. We invite all staff and administrators to make care and connection activities an ongoing daily practice, beginning the first week of school, so that every student, staff member and visitor who walks into a school building feels welcome, validated, and cared for.
Challenges returning to in-person school may be heightened for students, families and staff in communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, or those who have personally been impacted by illness or loss. These include members of tribes here in Oregon and Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Asian, and Pacific Islander communities, LGBTQ students, and those experiencing a disability, navigating poverty, and many living in Oregon’s rural communities. We must make sure our most impacted students are recognized for their strength and resiliency and receive the support they need and deserve.
Family, friends, guardians and others are welcome to celebrate Care and Connection Week as well! Talking with children about their feelings heading into the new school year can help alleviate fears and inspire eagerness and confidence. Making the days leading up to the first day of school special can provide for a positive transition. Maybe it’s having a celebration dinner with the whole family the night before school starts, or taking a family walk around the block and asking the students what they are looking forward to most about school.
The best part about Care and Connection Week is that it doesn’t have to stop with the first week of school. Once students, families and staff start incorporating care and connection activities into school, it can become a daily practice that builds strong, trusting bonds between students, staff, and families.