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Distance learning not going away for local schools

In a surprise to no one, Medford School District Superintendent Bret Champion announced Tuesday night that, due to the still too-high number of COVID-19 cases in Jackson County, the district must continue with comprehensive distance learning for at least the next six weeks.

Continuing on its “six-three” plan, the district will revisit the possibility of returning to in-person learning in early November.

Tuesday’s announcement was little more than a formality since the county’s COVID-19 caseload and positivity rate do not meet the standards set by the Oregon Health Authority in July for schools to reopen. Champion indicated as much during an interview last week, but made it official in a video posted on the district’s Facebook page Tuesday night.

“I’m sad to report that for the ninth week in a row, friends, Jackson County continues to be at the red level, which means more than 30 cases per 100,000 residents,” Champion said. “This means that we’re going to be in comprehensive distance learning, or MSD Connects at Home, for the next six weeks.”

Champion went on to encourage families to help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus by wearing masks, socially distance and washing hands. He also briefly introduced an upcoming “Get to Green” campaign, announced that the district is working on arranging more “limited” in-person instruction and thanked students, parents and district staffers for making the most of a tough situation.

“This is unbelievable what (parents) are taking on,” he said, “and I know a lot of you are balancing work and your kid or your kids, all who have slightly different schedules and you’re trying to work all of those details out. Thank you for your continued focus on those students and working with the schools as we work together to make this happen.”

To return to unrestricted in-person learning for the first time since last March, Jackson County schools, including those in Medford, Central Point, Eagle Point and Ashland, can only hope that the number of new COVID-19 cases in the county as well as county and state positivity rates come down and stay down. In order for kids in kindergarten through third grade to be allowed back in school full-time, Jackson County must have 66 or fewer COVID-19 cases per week and a 5% or less coronavirus test positivity rate in both the county and the state, and all those benchmarks must be met for three consecutive weeks. For students in fourth grade on up to head back to school, the test positivity standard is the same but the number of new cases goal is much stricter – no more than 22 new cases per week allowed for three consecutive weeks.

Jackson County isn’t close to hitting any of those benchmarks. It’s averaged 98.25 cases per week, with a high of 135 and a low of 72, over the previous eight weeks with a test positivity rate that’s also been well out of the strike zone in both the county and the state.

The Medford School District developed a color-coded spreadsheet that tracks the county and state COVID-19 data as it relates to state metrics, with red blocks signifying “comprehensive learning for all,” yellow marking “possibility for K-3 exemption,” and final a green zone for “possibility for on-site learning for all.” It’s almost completely red, and the four green or yellow blocks recorded over the previous eight-week span marked those few weeks when county or state positivity rates came down.

“And then finally, as a community,” Champion said, “while we are disappointed that we are not able to bring our kids back we can say without a doubt that collectively we are taking care of our students here in the Medford School District and it takes all of us to take care of our kids well, particularly right now. Just like it’s going to take all of us to get to green.”

While schools are mostly closed to in-person instruction, the ODE does allow for limited in-person instruction — no more than 250 students per building per week, to be exact. The district has already taken advantage of that rule by opening its doors for kindergartner orientation days, limited in-person instruction (LITI) and assessments. Also, students who have had internet connectivity problems have been allowed access to school buildings.

The district will be looking to expand those offerings soon, even calling on its bus fleet to pick up students. MSD communications and public relations specialist Natalie Hurd said the district is working to implement a program “where schools can work with teachers to determine which students need to come in the most so we can prioritize them.”

The target date for that to be rolled out is Oct. 12, but that could change, Hurd said.

“We know,” she added, “that the youngest learners can really benefit from coming in, so we’re looking at bringing in some of them.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

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