With three new cases of the coronavirus at Astoria Middle School and ongoing concerns about health and safety, the Astoria School District will delay a return to school buildings.

School leaders had hoped to begin phasing students back into buildings for more regular in-person instruction later this month and in early February. But at a special meeting Thursday night, school board members voted to follow a recommendation by Superintendent Craig Hoppes and delay fully reopening schools until local metrics begin to improve.

Astoria Middle School

New virus cases were reported at Astoria Middle School.

The school district was notified about the three new virus cases at Astoria Middle School between Jan. 15 and Tuesday. Hoppes declined to say whether the people who are sick are staff or students. All three people are resting at home, he told The Astorian.

“The cases were confined to a specific area within the building, which has been closed and sanitized,” he wrote in a statement. “The district continues to monitor and adhere to the health and safety standards that have been created to protect our staff and students.”

Hoppes’ recommendation to delay a reopening of schools was rooted in concern about the high number of local cases and rate of infection, he said.

But with unease about students’ emotional and mental well-being as many continue their school work in isolation, administrators will also look at ways to expand limited in-person instruction and offer more opportunities for students to interact face to face.

Vaccinations will soon be available for school district staff and teachers — 30 employees who wanted the vaccine have already received it as of Thursday — but experts are predicting another spike in virus cases in mid-February, Hoppes told the school board Thursday. The school district wants to avoid reopening schools only to have to close the doors again.

Gov. Kate Brown has prioritized a return to in-person instruction. State caseload metrics that have guided how and when schools reopen are now advisory rather than mandatory, but school districts say they may risk losing coronavirus liability protections if they don’t continue to follow the metrics. They must also comply with other state guidelines if they open outside of the metrics, including a potentially difficult requirement to provide on-site testing for staff or students who show virus symptoms.

While the Astoria school board believes they have strong safety measures in place, other worries persist as local cases remain high.

“We are so close to being able to bring kids back to school without having to have as many concerns as we do at this time,” said Jimmy Pearson, the Astoria Library director, who serves on the school board.

Among the school district’s staff, half did not feel comfortable about reopening so soon while others remained uncertain about what they would do if schools reopened. Families surveyed by the district were split on whether students should return to in-person classes.

On Thursday, a high school freshman read a letter to the board urging them to reopen schools. She spoke of fellow classmates who may be suffering abuse at home or struggling with their mental health. She faces daily distractions while juggling responsibilities at home and overlapping online classes. She said she feels a level of sadness she has never experienced before.

Two parents said their children are struggling academically and emotionally over the school year. One of the parents, Lisa Hankwitz, is also a first grade teacher at Astor Elementary School and described the impacts she has seen on her students in the English language development class she teaches. Online learning is especially difficult for students who know very little English, she said.

Even if students are only on campus for a couple of hours a day, as had been proposed in the reopening plan, “what we can do in-person far exceeds what we can do online,” she said.

But Bonny Johnson, another parent, pointed to the virus cases at the middle school. She urged the school board to stick to remote learning with some limited in-person instruction for students who need it until more people can be vaccinated and the local caseload drops.

Board member Heidi Wintermute, a school psychologist who has worked in Washington state’s Ocean Beach School District, said she has experienced the joy of students and teachers being reunited when a school reopened and then the frustration when schools had to close again.

Even when schools reopen, nothing goes back to normal, she said. Students will still not be receiving the same education they would receive in a pandemic-free year.

“My opinion is that there isn’t a perfect solution,” Wintermute said. “And no matter what we do, somebody is going to be impacted negatively and no matter what we choose it isn’t going to be equitable for everyone.”

Katie Frankowicz is a reporter for The Astorian. Contact her at 971-704-1723 or kfrankowicz@dailyastorian.com.