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Champion: District 'heartbroken' at vaccine news

Medford schools Superintendent Bret Champion said district employees were “heartbroken” Friday at the news that there may not be enough COVID-19 vaccines to cover local educators, but he reiterated that the district will release more details Thursday about its plans to reopen to in-person instruction.

After working with Jackson County Public Health, Asante and other community partners to help make sure a planned vaccination event scheduled for Thursday through Saturday, Jan. 21-23, at the Jackson County Expo would go off without a hitch, the Medford School District learned Friday morning that due to a vaccine shortage educators and people 65 and older would likely not be included.

The gut punch came hours before MSD received the final results from a district-wide survey that revealed 72% of those who come in contact with its students during a typical school day — a list that includes educators, bus drivers and food suppliers — would get the vaccine if it were available.

“We were incredibly disappointed,” Champion said. “I would go as far as to say that we were heartbroken. We have literally spent hours working on how can we make sure that we are super agile with whatever we need to do to make sure the vaccine is easily available because this Jan. 23 date was there. We didn’t want there to be any barrier. So we reached out to everybody we could think of that would have something to do with the vaccines.”

The news that the vaccine may not be delivered before the district potentially expands from limited in-person instruction to full in-person instruction wasn’t the only thing that made it sting, said Champion, emphasizing that the time spent working on the vaccination effort can’t be regained.

“We don’t have time to be spending on things that aren’t moving us forward right now,” he said. “We are trying to move as urgently as we can.”

There’s still a chance that the district’s work won’t go to waste, however. Even as Champion was lamenting the bad news during a press conference Friday afternoon, Gov. Kate Brown was holding another press conference in Salem that seemed to crack open the vaccination door for educators. There, Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said that a tentative plan was in the works that would move educators back into the vaccine batter’s box.

“We will open vaccinations to educators starting Jan. 25,” Allen said, “recognizing that a handful of counties have plans to begin tiptoeing into vaccinating their teachers this week, depending on their supply of vaccine on hand. We hope to vaccinate most educators within two weeks, but as always that entirely depends on the doses we receive from the federal government.”

Champion said the district is still scrambling to work out the details of a planned reopening that could come in mid to late February, but stressed that the scheduled announcement from the Oregon Department of Education Tuesday could send MSD administrators back to the drawing board. Regardless, he added, the district has already made at least one major decision regarding the reopening. District parents will have two options: either sign up for the new in-person version of school, whose design may evolve over time; or transfer to the district’s first-year online school, Medford Online Academy.

In other words, there will be no comprehensive distance learning or hybrid model reconfigured to suit families who don’t feel comfortable in buildings. Instead, families will have to decide whether to join the in-person expansion in whatever form that may take, or transfer to MOA.

“Once our plans are announced our parents will have options — options they’ve never had before in the history of Medford School District,” Champion said. “They can stay at their current school and engage in whatever that model is going to look like. For our younger grades we’re hoping that it will be a lot of in-class time for our kids. As you get older, probably more of the hybrid version, with some time in school and some time out of school. But our schools will offer one model.”

Based on an online survey of students and families conducted recently, MOA could see a major influx of new students. According to Champion, roughly 20% of MSD families who participated in the survey reported that they would feel uncomfortable with their students returning to school buildings. If each of those families choose to enroll in MOA, that would mean an increase of about 2,800 students for a program that currently has 600 students.

“So we’re talking about a mass number of students who may be interested in our online option,” Champion said. “I use that as one example of the complications of reopening. It’s not as simple as turn on the switch and let everybody come back in — in addition to all the social distancing we have to account for, in addition to all the safety protocols we need to have in place. There are just some logistical moving parts around transportation and food services and particular services for particular kids that we’re having to get down to a granular level to figure out all of those details.”

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