Reynolds Middle School is canceling in-person learning for approximately three weeks beginning Thursday and instead will hold classes remotely in order to develop “safety protocols” and “social-emotional supports” to address student fights and inappropriate behavior.

Parents learned of the in-person closure on Monday via a short, three-sentence email from the Reynolds School District. At 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Superintendent Danna Diaz followed up with another email explaining that the COVID-19 pandemic and more than 1 ½ years of disruptions “have taken a toll on the well-being of our students and staff.”

“The safety and security of our students, families, and staff is our highest priority,” Diaz said in her email.

The Reynold School District’s decision to shut down classrooms for such an extended period because of student behavior appears to be exceptionally rare. But the pandemic-related problem it faces might not be. Earlier this month, parents in Northeast Portland stood outside Roseway Heights Middle School holding signs pleading for more security and resources after a streak of serious fights among students.

Like schools across the state, the 9,000-student Reynolds district east of Portland shuttered all of its schools in March 2020, but then reopened them to hybrid learning in spring 2021 following Gov. Kate Brown’s direction. This fall, the district returned to full-time in-person learning, but that has been marred by student and staff COVID-19 cases and quarantines.

The school, in Fairview, is one of three middle schools in the district. It serves students from parts of Gresham, Fairview and Wood Village.

“We are finding that some students are struggling with the socialization skills necessary for in-person learning, which is causing disruption in school for other students,” Diaz said in her Tuesday email.

When asked for more detail, district spokesperson Steve Padilla confirmed that fights and other behavioral problems prompted the district to shutdown in-person learning temporarily from Thursday through Dec. 9, with each grade level returning for one day of in-person learning in that last week before a schoolwide in-person restart on Dec. 10.

Padilla couldn’t immediately provide more details about the number and frequency of fights or the circumstances in which they were occurring. He said to his knowledge, no weapons were involved.

“It’s not just fighting,” Padilla said. “It’s disruptive behaviors as well — students are disrupting other students, making it hard for them to learn.”

He added that the district is acting swiftly because it doesn’t want to wait for the next incident to occur.

“We need to take care of this now,” Padilla said. “It’s urgent.”

Neither Diaz nor school principal Sara Idle were available to be interviewed by The Oregonian/OregonLive Tuesday. Board chair Ana Gonzalez Muñoz and vice chair Yesenia Delgado didn’t immediately return requests for comment. The board, however, is expected to talk about the school’s troubles at its regularly scheduled meeting Wednesday at 7 p.m., viewable on Zoom.

Reynolds Middle School, with 928 students, is the only school in the district so far to have resorted to distance learning to address behavioral problems. Marc Siegel, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Education, said the department doesn’t play a role in approving district’s school closures.

Although Reynolds’ superintendent characterized the in-person closure as “approximately two weeks,” it spans about three weeks but encompasses two already scheduled school days off for the Thanksgiving holiday.

In all, Reynolds Middle School students will receive three full days off from classes — Thursday, Friday and Dec. 6 — that weren’t originally scheduled. During that time, Reynolds Middle School staff will craft “safety protocols” and design “social-emotional supports.”

For two additional days, students will receive 30 minutes of direct online instruction then spend the rest of those days learning on their own, also known as “asynchronous” learning. For an additional eight days, they will receive 3 hours and 45 minutes of in-person instruction.

In Diaz’s email to parents Tuesday, she said she realizes that shifting to remote learning “can be a hardship on our families.”

“We apologize for any inconvenience this temporary transition may cause,” she said. “We are confident that we can put necessary supports and operational procedures in place to effectively provide a safe learning environment for all students and staff during this time.”

— Aimee Green

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