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Schools look to continue extracurriculars, despite state guidance

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune A sign showing masks are required is displayed inside the South Medford High School gym during a holiday basketball tournament.
Oregon’s Department of Education recommends schools pause activities after school, but several Rogue Valley schools say they will continue

The return from winter break finds Rogue Valley school officials having to re-examine current protocols related to in-person learning after Oregon’s Department of Education issued “the most critical and urgent” health advisory since the coronavirus pandemic began.

The ODE sent out the message Jan. 3, warning “access to in-person instruction is under serious threat” due to an anticipated “significant COVID-19 surge” of Omicron variant cases beginning now and continuing through February.

The advisory said schools “should pause” extracurricular activities or to expect “rapid transmission of COVID-19” and the likelihood that virtual instruction will resume.

For the Medford School District, that’s a risk officials are willing to take.

“We know that these (extracurricular) activities for our students and families are almost as — and maybe possibly as important as — being in the classroom,” said MSD spokesperson Natalie Hurd. “We know that we can’t eliminate risk totally, but we can work to mitigate it.”

Hurd noted that even though there has been coronavirus transmission through extracurricular activities, there is also a “risk of our students suffering” if such things are removed.

“We went for over a year without any athletics or activities, and then once they were allowed again, we were asked to tread lightly,” she said. “This is year No. 3 of our students experiencing a multitude of losses due to COVID-19, including some of their most-treasured activities.”

But, Hurd added, “if we see impacts, we would reconsider” holding extracurricular activities.

The Phoenix-Talent School District said it would continue to allow extracurricular activities, citing the need to balance safety measures with students’ social-emotional well-being.

“In a way, these activities provide layered protection against the social-emotional threats of isolation, depression and inactivity, and that’s in addition to the many lifelong lessons gained through extracurriculars such as teamwork, sportsmanship and goal-setting,” the district wrote in an email. “Our students have been adhering to Oregon’s COVID-19 safety protocols associated with extracurricular activities since those activities resumed last spring.”

Eagle Point School District’s John Olivia said it would take more than just a day or two for officials to make decisions regarding items mentioned in the ODE advisory.

“This stuff is hot off the press,” said Olivia, who works as the health and safety/social emotional learning supervisor. “Nothing has been put in stone yet — all school districts just received this new email, so we’re all in discussions right now of how we’re going to move forward.”

A meeting was held Tuesday to discuss extracurricular activities, among other things. Eagle Point School District spokesperson Dean MacInnis said the district would be continuing them, saying it could do so by implementing masks, social distancing and outdoor spaces, wherever possible.

When it comes to sporting events, MacInnis added, Eagle Point schools hopes to utilize live streaming technology that spectators can use at home instead of coming to the games in an effort to reduce possible spread of coronavirus.

Eagle Point school officials will now hold their meetings virtually; implement a “campaign” via emails and robocalls to remind everyone of layered COVID-19 prevention practices; and ask parents to screen their kids before school to make sure they’re not sick.

Christine McCollom, Ashland School District’s director of programs and instruction, said a meeting would be held later in the week to decide whether changes should be made to extracurricular activities.

“We didn’t change anything right off the bat because we wanted to make a database decision, and we wanted to be able to be clear and communicate that with consistency,” she said.

She was referring to data officials might look at regarding coronavirus case counts in schools and in Jackson County.

When it comes to the risks the ODE sees with holding extracurricular activities, McCollom said it would factor into discussions she has with her colleagues.

“That’s why we’re meeting,” she said. “There’s a lot of different factors that go into this kind of a decision — equity and mental health are also ones we are encouraged to take into consideration.”

Even though Ashland, Medford and Eagle Point seem to be making decisions independent of each other and the state’s advisory, they’re all aligned in following “layered” coronavirus mitigation techniques, including asking parents not to send their sick kids to school, disinfecting surfaces, wearing masks in the classroom and social distancing.

All school representatives the newspaper spoke with agreed with the urgency expressed in the ODE’s advisory.

“Everyone has some COVID-19 fatigue, but at this point the warning from ODE that we need to heed (is) that the surge is coming and it’s important that districts take action to continue to protect students, staff and (the) community,” Hurd said.

McCollom noted that ODE sends out health advisories every time school returns from a break in instruction, and school officials “try to be as cautious as we can, to begin with.”

“We really are putting those layers of mitigation in place and we are very serious about student and staff health and safety, and if we feel like that’s being put in jeopardy, then we’ll change course,” McCollom said.

All of the officials agreed that in-person learning was the best mode of instruction, even during the pandemic.

“We want to make the decisions that are going to make it most likely we will remain in person for instruction for the remainder of the school year, and if we feel like that is in jeopardy at all, we will make a change,” McCollom said.

Hurd said Medford schools always prepared for return to in-person learning after winter break. She said the high vaccination rate among staff and the time necessary for quarantine made it possible for the mode of learning to go unchanged.

“We were forced into that (virtual) model,” in the early days of the pandemic, Hurd said, so “we can go back.”

“We are not planning for a return to remote learning, by any means,” she said. “We are being told there will be a surge, so we are doing a few things to prevent impact.”

That includes taking all Medford School District staff meetings to the online mode, Hurd said.

MacInnis noted in an email that even before winter break Eagle Point school officials had met to discuss “layered mitigation safety protocols” on coronavirus that have long been in place.

“Knowing how to optimize our schools to stay open is extremely important for student education and effective learning,” MacInnis wrote.

The Phoenix-Talent School District believes the “threat” of going back to virtual learning never went away, and instructors are prepared if it happens.

"Our educators already have months of experience in that area and will respond with the same commitment to their students that they’ve shown since long before the pandemic started,“ the district said.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.