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Medford schools will study in-person timeline after Brown announcement

School districts across the state were surprised Wednesday by Gov. Kate Brown’s announcement of a timeline for the reintroduction of in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brown has set a target date of Feb. 15, 2021, for when more Oregon students, especially elementary level, will return to in-person learning. The governor also announced that beginning Jan. 1, 2021, the current statewide mandatory metrics for schools to reopen to students will be advisory and that “decisions to resume in-person instruction must be made locally, district by district, school by school.”

Jackson County public schools predominantly have employed limited in-person instruction because of the region’s steady increase in coronavirus cases.

Earlier this month, the Medford School Board unanimously passed a resolution urging Brown to reevaluate the metrics for reopening schools and prioritize the return of all students in grades K-5, “with an ultimate goal of returning all students to school.”

Medford Superintendent Bret Champion said Wednesday that the district will be using surveys to help determine how the district’s reopening should look, then they’ll spend the next several weeks figuring out how to make it happen.

Champion said that Brown’s announcement Wednesday came “completely out of the blue.”

“Quite frankly, our reaction is that this just flows right into what we have said all along,” he said, “that we’re going to make decisions to ensure we have a high-quality education for every student while not compromising the health, safety and wellness of our students, our staff or our community. So we’ll continue to prioritize those things.”

Brown also emphasized the need for safety protocols when planning for reopening.

“It is clear that the greatest gift we can give to Oregon’s children this holiday season is to redouble our efforts to act responsibly and reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our communities,” Brown said. “Our students’ learning, resilience, and future well-being depend on all of us.”

In an attempt to meet the target date the governor has directed the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority to implement several new policy initiatives, which includes on-site rapid testing and prioritizing teachers and school staff in the state’s next round of COVID-19 vaccinations.

“[Vaccinating teachers and staff] will help ensure we are making learning environments as safe as possible,” Brown said.

Champion said that the timing of Brown’s announcement would impact plans for reopening.

“Of course, because this happened right now when everybody is on vacation, there’s going to be a slight delay in moving some things forward,” Champion said, “but we do know that it’s important for us to continue to follow our core values of simplicity and grace and equity and transparency, and so we’ll be reaching out to get people’s voice about what our next steps should be.

“That’ll be from a variety of stakeholders, both in some surveys but also from a reopening task force that we’ll be working through. ... That means in order for us to have plenty of planning and preparation time we’ll need to make some decisions by mid to late January on that task force and communicate those out. And then we’ll need to have some planning time to get ready for it because this is a major shift in the work.”

The state health authority and Department of Education will review the current metrics and announce updated guidelines before Jan. 19, 2021.

Based on data from the state’s education department, in early December around 9% of Oregon public school students have returned for in-person school or a hybrid schedule, a result largely of stringent metrics set by Brown, for school reopening.

Champion said that the Medford district’s decision-making progress will also be based on the county’s status in regards to the pandemic.

“One thing that has not changed is we’ve always been about students and science in this work, and so we will continue to rely on Jackson County Public Health,” he said. “We’ll continue to rely on the incredible protocols put in place by Oregon Health Authority in our Ready Schools Safe Learners guidance. And we’ll continue to ensure that we’re following all the things from the health department, from Oregon Health Authority and working with our staff to make sure that that is true.

“So in reality, this is just the next evolution of the process as we continue to move forward.”

Champion said that the timeline involved should ease peoples’ concerns about reopening during a time when county coronavirus numbers are growing.

“I remind folks to not panic and to not think that anything’s going to be changed come Jan. 4,” he said, referencing the return date from winter break. “We will begin the work (then) and we appreciate that the governor has given this idea of Feb. 15 as a time to start getting our kids back in some way, shape or form. But there are a lot more details to come.”

One factor certain to be involved in decision making, he said, will be determing the desire of district families to return to in-person learning.

“Since the announcement,” Champion said, “I’ve gotten emails from parents saying ‘We want to come back as soon as possible,’ and I’ve gotten emails from parents saying, ‘This doesn’t change anything, we’re not ready to come back until everybody’s vaccinated.’ I’ve gotten a bit of that from other educators, too, verbally.”

Brown said Wednesday that when it comes to the local decision making process on whether or not schools reopen, teachers, school staff, parents and students should be engaged in this decision-making process.

“This is not a simple matter of we just flip a switch and suddenly our schools are open,” Champion cautioned. “There’s a lot of planning, a lot of work, a lot of getting to understanding and ensuring that the safety protocols are clearly followed. So all of that work is still to come.”

Mail Tribune education reporter Joe Zavala and Sara Cline of The Associated Press/Report for America contributed to this report.

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