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Schools brace for change

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s update to its physical distancing recommendations in classrooms Friday morning from 6 feet to 3 feet could lead to far more in-person instruction locally if the Oregon Department of Education decides to follow suit.

Citing three new studies it says supports the change, the CDC announced that students should be at least 3 feet apart in elementary schools, and “in middle schools and high schools, students should be at least 3 feet apart in areas of low, moderate or substantial community transmission. In areas of high community transmission, middle and high school students should be six feet apart if cohorting is not possible.”

Local school districts were already working earlier this week on plans to expand their in-person offerings in anticipation of the move, which had been rumored in the days leading up to the Oregon Department of Education’s own update, released Monday. Now, local districts are waiting to see whether the ODE releases another update to reflect the CDC’s recommendations.

Not long after the CDC’s announcement, Oregon State Epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger indicated during a press conference that the ODE would update state guidelines soon, but didn’t elaborate.

“We’ve been in active communication — the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education — to see how we can align Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance with the new CDC guidance and try to get those guidelines incorporated into Ready Schools, Safe Learners as quickly as we can so schools can have that in place as they plan the rest of the school year and have conversations in their community,” Sidelinger said.

That would be welcome news locally.

“If that happens, that would be a game-changer for us,” said Natalie Hurd, communication coordinator for the Medford School District. “Because our classrooms must be set up for students to be 6 feet apart, we can really only have a small number of students in a classroom, which is the whole reason behind the hybrid schedule (for students in grades 4-12).”

During a news conference Friday afternoon, Medford Superintendent Bret Champion took it a step further: “With the shift from 6 feet to 3 feet, it’s our belief we can bring every student back — elementary, middle school and high school — and look forward to the day that we can do that,” he said.

Such a transition would not look the same at every school, however. From the moment ODE announces such a move, Champion said, how quickly Medford students could go from hybrid to full-time in-person would depend on their grade level. Fourth- through-sixth-graders could be back within days, he said, but it would take longer — possibly two to three weeks — to work out all the logistics at the upper-grade levels.

Medford School District opened up to students in kindergarten through third grade four days a week starting Feb. 22 (K-1) and Feb. 25 (2-3), but fourth- through sixth-graders have been limited to two days per week since returning to in-person instruction March 1 and middle- and high-schoolers are slated to have a similar hybrid schedule when they return March 29.

If ODE announces a change soon, the timing of the move could prove advantageous — schools will be empty next week during spring break, affording schools an opportunity to prepare classrooms.

“It’s a little more complicated than that just because of furniture and classroom layout and things like that,” Hurd said, “but we’re moving forward with doing an analysis on each of our rooms and actually starting to look at moving our desks back in so that even if we’re not allowed to have the additional students, we’d have the desks in there and ready to go if that change takes effect.”

Hurd said the district is also looking at reconvening its reopening task force next week to discuss how best to implement any potential changes to the guidance. There are other considerations, too, she added.

“We’ll be working with the employee association to have those conversations as well,” she said. “We know that families have already endured many schedule changes, staff has endured many changes to the format, and the way that we’ve done things, our schools have redone their master schedules many times. And yet we also know that students are suffering with only being able to go to school a couple times a week.”

Other school districts in Southern Oregon have also been anticipating how updates to the Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance may impact their own schools.

In Eagle Point, where high-schoolers and middle-schoolers are on alternating two-days-per-week and three-days-per-week schedules, Superintendent Andy Kovach said he’d like to return to full-time in-person for all students but pointed out that time is running out on the school year. The last day of school is June 9, less than 12 weeks away.

“If we were able to do so, it would likely not be full-time in the pre-COVID sense,” Kovach said in an email. “For example, we would likely make adjustments targeting our seniors. They’re our most urgent need at the moment. We also would probably not be able to make big changes in transportation, which impacts overall instructional time.”

In Central Point, where all but two elementary schools are slated to offer only a hybrid of in-person and remote learning for the remainder of the school year, Superintendent Samantha Steele expects ODE to update its guidance to reflect the CDC’s, noting that has been its practice so far. If that happens, she said, Central Point schools could greatly expand their in-person instruction offerings within two weeks of that announcement.

“We could open to everyone,” she said. “One of the rules that I know will persist through the end of the year is the requirement that we provide a Comprehensive Distance Learning option for any family that requests it. If I had to predict, I would say that if they moved it to 3 feet tomorrow, we would open four days a week for all students. Right now we have four days a week at two of our (elementary) schools where there’s space, but we would open for four days a week for all kids. “It might look a little bit different at the high school just because there are schedules involved, but every kid would have the option to go four days a week, and that fifth day would be to provide the Comprehensive Distance Learning.”

In Ashland, Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove also believes a change in ODE’s guidance from 6 feet to 3 would open up the possibility of expanded in-person school there, but said chances are those changes wouldn’t be implemented until next fall.

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

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribunePerry Dudley, Medford School District head custodian, and Ron Havniear, Medford School District manager, separate desks Friday at Griffin Creek Elementary School in Medford.