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Local school districts respond to new re-opening guidelines

The 11th-hour curveball local school administrators had feared didn’t come Tuesday from the Oregon Department of Education, and Medford superintendent Bret Champion is as optimistic as ever that schools will be able to reopen at least in part by Feb. 15.

The ODE released the latest update to its guidance for schools looking to remain open or reopen amid COVID-19 and, to the relief of both Champion and Central Point School District superintendent Samantha Steele, the 91-page document does not appear to throw a wrench into ongoing plans to expand to a hybrid model from limited in-person instruction.

Instead, the updated advisory metrics, aligned to the Harvard Global Health Institute recommendations, allow for a return to in-person instruction at higher levels of community case rates than previously recommended. And those metrics remain advisory rather than required — a crucial change that took effect Jan. 1.

“So we literally were waiting for a rug-pulling moment and that moment didn’t come,” Champion said after pouring over the state’s latest guidance. “To ODE’s credit, they had talked to superintendents in advance. There was nothing in there that we didn’t expect — we weren’t 100% sure it would look exactly like it did. But we were thrilled that ODE did give us some heads up as to what was likely to be included.”

According to the ODE’s latest recommendations, schools should consider transitioning to on-site or hybrid learning for students in grades kindergarten through five if county infections remain at or below 350 per 100,000 residents for a two-week period and the test positivity rate does not exceed 10%.

For middle and high schools, the ODE now recommends a hybrid of remote and in-person instruction so long as county cases do not exceed 200 cases per 100,000 residents for two weeks and the test positivity rate stays below 10%.

While Jackson County’s test positivity rate hasn’t exceeded 10% since the two-week period that ended Nov. 14, it also hasn’t come in below 300 cases per 100,000 residents during any two-week stretch since late October. That’s why the ODE’s decision to keep the metrics advisory rather than mandatory was paramount, and Champion said Tuesday that he would be comfortable opening schools even if those numbers don’t come down.

“I would say that given all of the protocols and mitigating factors that schools have in place, I do feel confident in our educators, in our staff, in our students and families to follow all of those protocols and to move learning forward,” he said.

“I’ll be honest, one of the things we talk about a lot is that you have folks on both sides of this that say this is life or death if we bring kids in, and they’re both right. ... We talk to parents and kids and some of our staff, and they say it’s a matter of life or death for our students — for their mental health, for their future abilities, for their actual physical health — and they need to get in an environment with teachers and with other kids for socialization factors.”

Champion reiterated that the district is still shooting to roll out its new in-person model, which will likely resemble a hybrid mixture of in-person and remote learning, sometime in mid-February. The district will unveil details of its reopening plan Thursday and on Friday will begin “talking to parents about what their next steps are and what their choice are,” Champion said.

Face coverings or face shields are required indoors and outdoors for all students kindergarten on up, and face shields are acceptable only when a student has a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask or face covering or when people need to see the student’s mouth and tongue motions in order to communicate.

Families who don’t feel comfortable returning to in-person instruction must enroll in the district’s first-year online school called Medford Online Academy.

“We put Feb. 15 as a target ... that’s still continues to be our (goal),” Champion said. “There are a number of factors that go into opening. It’s not just a matter of flipping a switch and suddenly you welcome students back — transportation alone is a complicating factor.

“So we’re just excited that we have a choice for parents. That we’re not in an era that wasn’t too long ago — when we said to parents, here’s the one thing that you’re going to do. We’re excited that we’re going to be able to present parents with choice as we move forward with our next steps.”

Central Point School District had already announced, via its website, a planned Feb. 2 reopening and Steele said that while the ODE’s decision to keep the metrics advisory was preferable, Tuesday’s announcement did include a few requirements that will complicate matters.

For one, schools that return to in-person instruction out of alignment with the metrics must offer access to on-site COVID-19 testing for symptomatic students and staff and those with known exposure to individuals with the virus by March 1. Also, social distancing requirements — 35 square feet of space per student in each classroom, for instance — pose logistical challenges that will take time to puzzle out. In Central Point, that will likely mean different schedules for different schools.

“We’re focused on Feb. 2 to have kids return in a hybrid situation,” Steele said, “and I think we’ll know by the end of the week how realistic it is to open K-12 under these revised requirements. There are a lot of pieces to put in place.”

Figuring all that out over the next two weeks will be a bear, she said, but that’s still the goal.

“I want to be really transparent with families and the staff about what the challenges are, that is our goal, we’re actively working toward it,” Steele said. “We could say we’re going to open for in-person or for hybrid March 15, right after spring break, and there would be no problem meeting that goal, but I think it’s more important for us to get kids back sooner if we can get it done safely and get these things in place.”

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

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Washington Elementary kindergarten students burn some energy during P.E. on Tuesday.