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Medford schools plan to bring elementary students back full-time

Medford School District’s latest plan for the upcoming school year will bring students and teachers back into classrooms, but regaining a sense of normalcy isn’t as easy.

The 27-page document, sent to families and staff Monday evening, outlines strategies to move Central Medford High School to a new site, implement personal protective equipment and create a new fifth-/sixth-grade center to enable elementary students to attend school in-person five days a week.

“Honestly, we’re not even calling it a plan yet,” said Bret Champion, superintendent of Medford schools. “Because a plan conveys a heavy dose of details that we know this framework doesn’t have yet. We’re continuing to fill in the gaps of the framework with more details.”

Since the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority issued the “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidance in June, Medford officials have been planning how to meet all 139 requirements outlined in the document. The process involves striking a balance between keeping students and staff safe during the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuring that students can continue to learn.

“I talk about the rubber band we’re stretching between providing a high-quality education and ensuring the health and wellness of our students, staff and community,” Champion said. “We’re just always trying to get the tension just right on that rubber band.”

Officials asked the Medford School Board to approve a revised school year calendar that pushes the start of the year back by a week, to Sept. 8, to ensure staff have more time to prepare for the changes coming, including use of a new learning management system. The School Board approved the revised calendar July 8.

While middle and high schools will prioritize “vulnerable” students — those most likely to lose ground learning from a distance — for in-person instruction five days a week, officials are preparing to bring all elementary students back to newly socially distanced classrooms.

COVID-19 symptom screening will begin at home, according to the Medford plan, with families expected to take students’ temperatures daily before they attend school. Upon arrival, staff will log which students are arriving at school, including whether they are riding a bus, for contact tracing purposes. Staff will also conduct a visual screening for symptoms of illness, the plan says, with confirmation from a parent or guardian.

Staff may wear face coverings while they are in close contact with students or the public, the document said, and masks will be provided to students in grades five through 12. Any student riding a bus will be required to wear a mask.

Individual classes will often be divided into two rooms to meet the state’s 35-square-foot per-person requirement. A teacher and an educational assistant will manage each class. Students will stay with their cohort as they participate in recess on the playground or go to lunch in the cafeteria.

The majority of high school and middle school students will participate in a hybrid model of in-person and distance instruction. The school district is switching its middle and high schools to trimesters to lighten students’ class loads per grading period.

Medford’s facilities department spent weeks analyzing all the square footage available to use for classroom space — including gyms, libraries and other non-classroom areas in schools. In most Medford elementary schools, Champion said, students and staff could fit in existing classroom space with the new distance requirements, without having to use libraries or gyms. That will allow physical education, for example, to continue.

“Our goal was trying to bring some normalcy to our students as best we could,” Champion said.

Four of Medford’s elementary schools didn’t have enough space for all of its staff and students to meet the state requirements: Hoover, Kennedy, Howard and Abraham Lincoln.

That space crunch led to the plan to create the fifth-/sixth-grade center elsewhere. Those students will attend school at 815 S. Oakdale Ave., which for years has been the home of district administrative offices and Central Medford High School.

The center will be headed by a principal, according to Medford’s plan, and will open after the site has undergone some upgrades this summer.

Central Medford High School, meanwhile, will likely relocate to the former campus of Grace Christian School, on the southeast side of the Medford First Baptist Church campus. Medford had previously explored leasing that space for the alternative high school and related programs.

District offices will relocate to rented space in downtown Medford, Champion said.

Feedback from parents, students and staff helped inform Medford’s plan. Champion hosted two virtual town halls on Facebook with staff and families, and input was also collected through surveys.

Troy Pomeroy, president of the Medford Education Association, said teachers were offered multiple opportunities to present beliefs, opinions and concerns leading up to the release of this initial fall plan.

“(Champion is) a very responsive leader, so he is open to input,” Pomeroy said. “If people email or call him, he will consider their ideas.”

Teachers are far from uniform in their opinions about whether in-person or virtual instruction should take precedence in the fall, Pomeroy said. If you took a sample of all the teachers, he said, you’d get 100 different opinions.

“Just like society, there’s everybody on all sides of the spectrum,” he said.

With virtual learning still planned as an option for medically fragile students or those for whom in-person learning isn’t an option, teachers are facing a steep learning curve once again. They’ll learn this summer how to use a new learning management system called Canvas, which is already in use at Oregon State University and the University of Oregon.

For students with disabilities, who were among those most severely affected by the obstacles of distance learning, the approach to their schooling next year will have to be individual, according to the framework. Students with individualized education plans are among those vulnerable students who are prioritized at the high school and middle school levels to attend in-person.

But for those who have heightened health risks and need to stay at home, it will take creative problem-solving and PPE to make sure their needs are met.

“We have an absolute duty to provide them with the highest-quality education that we can,” Champion said.

Medford’s framework was released the same day that some of the nation’s largest school districts, as well as Portland Public Schools, announced they are not planning to bring students back to the classroom.

Champion also acknowledged that the framework laid out to families is still dependent on how COVID-19 continues to affect the state and what guidance comes from state officials in the coming months.

Plans for how to continue educating students after an outbreak happens at a school or classroom are still being finalized, as those are formed in collaboration with health departments from multiple counties included in the Southern Oregon Education Service District, said spokeswoman Natalie Hurd.

How the district will cover increased costs of PPE for staff and students riding buses, extra sanitization of classrooms and playgrounds and leases to rent space remains uncertain, as Medford waits to see what decisions the Oregon Legislature and Congress will make to stabilize education funding during the economic fallout of the pandemic.

“Any of the choices we have, it’s going to cost more money,” Champion said. “There is no doubt.”

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

file photoA student in Medford School District's migrant summer school takes notes during a welding class at South Medford High School.