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Parents rally for open schools

Holding signs, chanting and waving to passing motorists honking their support, about 120 people gathered Monday afternoon near the fountain in front of the Jackson County Courthouse to voice their support for reopening schools.

Sister rallies held at the Oregon Capitol in Salem and in Bend the same day amplified an identical message, and the organizer of the Salem rally, Shalyse Olson, started a petition on Change.org which had garnered 5,150 signatures as of noon Tuesday.

The organizer of Medford’s 4 to 6 p.m. rally, Julie Brooksby, said she understands the risks of sending children back to school buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic, but believes strongly that it’s worth the risk when you consider the side effects of remote learning.

“I’m sure there are some people who think that COVID should not allow us to go back to school,” Brooksby said, raising her voice over the blare of car horns. “We are not here saying COVID’s not real. We believe in masks, we believe in social distancing, we believe in Plexiglas. But we really believe in mental health. We believe that kids need the social services that they receive when they go to school, and we think that those things outweigh the risks of getting COVID.”

The rally, at which the vast majority of participants wore masks, came six days after Medford School District Superintendent Bret Champion announced that Medford schools would stay the course with comprehensive distance learning for at least another six weeks. Continuing on its “six-three” plan, the district will revisit the possibility of returning to in-person learning in early November, he said.

Champion’s announcement was a formality, because when it comes to reopening schools Jackson County’s fate is tied to its daily COVID-19 case load and state and county test positivity rates, not each superintendent’s assessment of the situation. Jackson County hasn’t come close to meeting the strict COVID-19 standards set forth by the Oregon Health Authority in July, and when asked prior to his announcement whether those standards may be relaxed by the OHA in order to allow for a hybrid education model, Champion said, “there has been no conversation of shifting the metrics.”

Brooksby acknowledged that Champion’s hands are tied, so she’s hoping that the OHA and Oregon Department of Education will reconsider the state’s earlier decision, which was designed to protect public employees and students from the virus and help slow the spread of COVID-19.

“I was an educator before I had my children, so that really does help,” said Brooksby, who has five children. “So, yes, I can make it work. It’s not easy. But what if I hadn’t been an educator or if I couldn’t stay home? I have no idea how these people are doing it and I want to be their voice. If it’s hard for them, if they’d like other options, I want to be their voice.”

Other demonstrators, many of whom brought along their kids, echoed Brooksby’s sentiments while waving to drivers from the corner of South Oakdale Avenue and West Eighth Street. The signs, held by kids and adults alike, shouted in large, bold lettering the same message. Some examples, minus the all-caps flavoring but including one intentional misspelling: “School not screens;” “Education is an essential service;” “Give me my choice;” “I thought skreens rot your brain;” and “Better options for families.”

A man with a blowhorn fired up supporters.

“What do we want?” he shouted.

“School!”

“And when do we want it?”

“Now!”

Sunni West, a mother of six who has four children who attend Medford schools, said last spring was a disaster for local students and their parents. One of her daughters became depressed and all but stopped attending virtual classes, another daughter spent about 11 “intense” hours a day on screens, and her two elementary students had hardly any school assignments to speak of and mostly “just played around all day.”

West credits Medford School District with greatly improving its remote learning system, including its implementation of the online school platform Canvas. Her daughter’s mental health has improved and the district is doing the best it can, but the experience for parents and children alike, she says, is still decidedly lacking.

“I have to be on top of all four of my kids at home,” she said. “What’s going on on their screen? Is it appropriate things on their screens, versus social media or YouTube videos? It is a lot more improved than it was in the spring, I will say that, as far as what the district has offered. But all of my kids say we really miss school, we feel like we’re not learning as much, we don’t get to see our friends, we don’t get to do group projects. The quality is not there. They don’t have a teacher.”

West has heard plenty of similar accounts from friends, too. The list includes a mother of a first-grader who says she supervises four to five hours of Zoom meetings every day, a mom of a fifth-grader whose child receives only one hour of Zoom classes a day and the rest of her assignments via email, and yet another friend who couldn’t attend Monday’s rally because she had to go right from her full-time job to helping her kids finish their homework.

The latter friend’s text read, “Ugh, I can’t go. I’m so sorry, but can you tell them some of us who want to be there can’t because we have to go home and help our kids do homework until 10 p.m. ... Totally exhausted.”

West added that no matter how hard she tries, she can’t measure up to a professional educator. She suspected as much even before one of her sons, an elementary student, offered his blunt analysis.

“He says, ‘Mom, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, you do a good job and I really like you, but you’re not a teacher,’” West said, recounting the exchange. “And I’m not. So I don’t know the tricks, I don’t have the little fun songs to sing and things to keep his attention.”

At least one of the rally’s participants, Candey Lee, brought a unique perspective to the event. A mother of three teenage daughters, Lee teaches a first- and second-grade blended class in the Central Point School District. Lee said most teachers are far more comfortable on Zoom now than they were when the pandemic took hold last spring and have implemented measured tweaks to their online classrooms, such as dividing classes into small groups to increase interaction.

But citing mental health concerns, Lee said she’s in favor of a hybrid model that would open the door for safe on-site learning. There would be plenty of details to work out, she said, but she’s confident that the end result would be superior to fully remote learning.

“I’m here because I’d like to see an option where families could choose to send their kids back to school socially distanced with full sanitation on board,” she said. “Our custodians are trained and prepared and ready to meet that need. I’m not saying to open up the schools fully and let all kids back in at once. I still want us to be in some type of a hybrid situation so that kids who really want to come back onto campus can, whether that’s every day or every other day, but at least a step in that direction. Teachers need to have more frequent interaction with their kids in person and be able to pivot and teach and meet the kids where they’re needed.”

Lee said her daughters — a 12th grader, a 10th-grader and an eighth-grader — would be “elated” if the schools opened up. She’s all for it too, and not just as a teacher. Lee wakes up every morning at 4:30, arrives on campus between 6:30 and 7 and returns home by about 5 p.m. Then, she helps her daughters with their school work into the evening.

Like many parents who have become intimate with remote learning, Lee describes a nighttime routine that sounds more like a surrender than rest.

“I fall asleep probably by 9 o’clock,” she said. “I don’t really go to bed, I just fall asleep.”

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

Dozens of protesters gather Tuesday evening outside the Jackson County Courthouse in Medford to listen to speakers during a rally to demand the reopening of schools. Kevin McNamara / KTVL