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All Medford students will learn remotely into October

Medford students of all ages will begin the school year online, the school district announced in its latest update Wednesday.

Made first to staff and then to families in video meetings, the announcement came on the heels of the latest COVID-19 numbers from Jackson County Public Health, showing that the county would likely not meet established metrics from the state to open schools to any of its students, even the youngest.

“We are for sure not able to open,” said Bret Champion, superintendent of the Medford School District.

In the latest of Medford’s plans, which have evolved significantly in response to changing guidance from the state, the school district now plans to adhere to what Champion described as a “six-three rhythm.” That will mean sticking to distance learning for periods of six weeks at a time, reassessing the school district’s readiness to either open campuses to students or remain online for the next six-week period, in the third week of each of those periods.

In the six weeks from Sept. 8 through Oct. 16, all Medford students will learn remotely. On Sept. 29, the district will announce whether the next six week period, from Oct. 19 through Dec. 6, will be all online, or will include some in-person instruction.

The goal? “Six weeks of stability and predictability, with assessment and next steps determined every three weeks,” a district powerpoint presented to parents Wednesday evening said.

Troy Pomeroy, president of the Medford Education Association, said he approves of the strategy.

“I think it’s a great (plan),” he said “It’s been really well thought-out.”

It was a recent spike in new COVID-19 cases in the past week that pushed Jackson County out of compliance with the metric set by the Oregon Health Authority to reopen schools to students of any age. Previously, the county had been in line to be able to open at least to students in kindergarten, first, second and third grade, since the state limit for new cases per 100,000 people is higher for that age group.

But now, Jackson County has entered what Champion described as the “red zone.”

“Right now, we are very, very, very far from green,” he said, referring to a scenario where all students in K-12 and their teachers could return to the classroom. To achieve that, Jackson County would have to see 22 or fewer new COVID-19 cases per week for three weeks in a row, per the state metrics.

A “yellow” scenario, in which only the young elementary students would be allowed to return to their teachers’ classrooms, would require a maximum of 66 new cases per week for three weeks.

Jackson County Commissioners in a meeting Monday said the numbers weren’t attainable.

“We’re way off as far as qualifying to get schools open,” said Commissioner Colleen Roberts.

The valuable aspect of Medford’s newest plan, for teachers and families, is the time that will be built in to implement any possible changes to the learning format, both Champion and Pomeroy stressed.

“They just want some clarity,” Champion said. “This notion of predictability and stability will help. It’s the not knowing that has been the most challenging thing for our staff.”

Pomeroy also said the summer months of uncertainty about what direction the school district would go have been stressful.

“Teachers have been on pins and needles all summer,” he said.

Many details of the new plans are still being sorted out, including those specific to individual grades and classrooms. Medford has set a benchmark for instructional time, that at least 50% of teachers’ time with students during the week must be directly interfacing with them, conveying a lesson through Zoom, for example. Any remaining time may be spent on independent work.

Programs such as Edgenuity and Pearson Connexus will provide curriculum, and staff and students work will be hosted through an online learning management system called Canvas.

The option to enroll students in Medford’s Online Academy also remains, school officials said. That online school will remain consistent whether or not schools open or close.

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

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Desks are placed 6 feet apart at Washington Elementary School in preparation for opening.