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Schools tamp down activities; Ashland announces closure

Editor's note: Late Thursday night, Gov. Kate Brown announced the closure of all K-12 schools statewide. See the updated story here.

Medford School District has suspended all non-essential school-based and after-school activities for four weeks effective immediately, Superintendent Bret Champion announced Thursday.

“Today everything’s changed,” he said in a press conference. “The fact is, this situation is the most fluid situation that we’ve ever seen.”

Medford’s announcement followed a Wednesday night directive from Gov. Kate Brown banning gatherings of 250 people or more and guidance from the Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority to keep schools open while reducing other opportunities for potential spread of COVID-19.

That includes field trips, parent-teacher organization meetings, drama performances and a host of other events and extracurriculars, according to the latest update from ODE.

Seated in his office next to a massive whiteboard full of crossed-out and question-marked event names, Champion expressed dismay about the choices that the fight against the disease has forced upon district leadership. Communications Specialist Natalie Hurd, Medford School Board Chair Cynthia Wright and Facilities Director Ron Havniear sat beside him.

“Everyone’s going to have to make sacrifices for the sake of the community,” Champion said. “And these are some of the sacrifices that we will have to make in order to make sure our community is well.”

Volunteers who are considered non-essential are also being barred from their usual positions, not only in Medford but in other school districts responding to the state agencies’ recommendations. SMART reading is suspended, and volunteers with the Foster Grandparent program will stay clear of their schools until further notice, as senior citizens are considered particularly vulnerable to the disease.

The Oregon Health Authority announced three more presumptive cases of COVID-19 in Oregon Thursday afternoon: one in Clackamas County and two in Washington County. In Jackson County, two travel-related cases made public March 7 remain the only identified local patients, and health officials said there is no evidence of community spread.

Other school districts also indicated their compliance with the ODE and OHA guidelines Thursday afternoon.

Central Point School District posted an ever-growing list of events and their status, noting which are canceled, which are happening remotely and which are rescheduled.

Eagle Point School District’s web update also said that non-essential activities will be suspended as the district remains open. Phoenix-Talent schools will do the same.

Ashland School District, however, canceled classes for the duration of the week before spring break, from March 17 through March 20 (a planned in-service day on March 16 meant students were already not going to be in school). Kelly Raymond, superintendent, informed families in an email Thursday evening of the cancellation.

"We are not aware of any cases of COVID-19 in Ashland, and we do believe students are safe in our schools," she wrote. "However, based on the experiences of other communities that have been affected, it is clear that reduced public interaction slows the spread of the virus."

Similarly, classes will be canceled at Grace Christian Elementary and Cascade Christian High School from March 16-20, while deep cleaning takes place. Friday, March 13, will be a half-day ending at 12:15 p.m., according to an email to families from Ken Townsend, head of Grace Cascade Christian Schools.

Most districts have said they are waiting for additional guidance from Oregon School Activities Association on athletic practices and events — the most recent update allows practices and events, excluding spectators and allowing only essential staff and credentialed media. Championships for winter sports were canceled Thursday, sending Crater High boys and girls basketball teams and South Medford High School girls home before their respective semifinal games.

The Butte Falls and Prospect school districts did not have updated guidance on their websites by end of day Thursday.

In schools and districts where no cases of COVID-19 have been identified, ODE and OHA continue to recommend staying open. Officials noted that school closures cause far more severe disruption to families’ lives than limiting after-school activities.

But schools are formulating plans to mitigate impacts to education and other services that they provide and students rely on.

School meals are one example. Students from food-insecure homes, some of whom receive all three daily meals at school, are at risk for going without food if schools are closed.

Pamela Norr, executive officer of ACCESS, said the nonprofit has been planning for increased need in the community, as those unable to stock up at stores may struggle to find basic foods that have been scooped up. ACCESS is in contact with school partners but doesn’t have a solid plan in place dealing specifically with school closures.

“I can’t say what we’re going to do in the future, but we’re going to keep lines of communication open,” she said.

Monetary donations to ACCESS can purchase $4 of food for every $1 donated, and one in three of the 53,000 people annually served by ACCESS is a local child.

Samantha Steele, superintendent of Central Point schools, said her district is considering building a replacement model similar to the way free meals are provided in the summer, including lunches that can be grabbed on the go.

“This is something we haven’t explored in depth,” she said, adding that the many rules involved with school food service complicate the matter.

Raymond told parents that breakfasts and lunches would continue to be served at Ashland schools, with more details on how that will look coming next week.

Transitioning instruction to remote or online methods is a mammoth task. Medford’s plan is a tiered approach, Champion said, depending on the closure scenario. A brief hiatus to deep-clean a school if infection is discovered, for example, is Tier One.

The highest tier is a plan for a district-wide, extended closure, similar to what some districts in Washington are experiencing after Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all private and public schools in three counties to shut down until April 24.

Relying solely on digital technology and reliable internet to provide instruction, however, leaves children without those resources in the lurch, so Steele said her team is exploring paper methods of delivering and picking up homework and lessons.

Not all parents or staff will wait for schools to close before self-isolating, however. Vulnerable people may do so voluntarily.

Part of some school districts’ pandemic response plans involves tracking student and staff absences as a way of determining their response in providing instruction.

Hurd said Medford has seen “a handful” of families pull their children out of school as a precautionary measure, but for the most part, families have expressed appreciation for up-to-date information and said it’s made them less fearful.

Steele said that since the district deployed its pandemic response plan March 1, there’s been a noticeable uptick in absences.

Wednesday, for example, Patrick Elementary saw a 15% student absence rate, she said. Sam’s Valley Elementary student absence was at 16%. Those numbers are higher than normal, she said.

As school district leaders continue to adjust and readjust to state guidance, they stressed the importance of keeping the overall community good as a central priority.

“It’s easy to get angry and demand answers about every possible circumstance, but the reality is we’re all this together,” Steele said. “We will find a way through it, but we all need to have some grace for institutions ... and do our best to meet student needs, staff needs and community needs.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Medford Schools Superintendent Bret Champion and Natalie Hurd talk to the press Thursday afternoon about the school districts intention of staying open in care of the students.