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MSD: Schools are reopening

The Medford School District will return to all-day in-person learning beginning Feb. 22 for its youngest learners, with kindergarten through third-grade students set to attend four days a week and everybody else outside of Central Medford High School students adopting a hybrid schedule and attending in-person twice a week, the district announced Thursday.

Kindergartners and first-graders will get the first crack at Medford’s expanded in-person model, returning to all-day learning four days a week starting Feb. 22, with Wednesday set aside for synchronous remote learning for a minimum of two hours. Second- and third-graders will be phased into the same schedule Feb. 25.

Student orientation for kindergarten through third-graders will begin Feb. 16, but what those orientations will entail exactly for both grade-schoolers and older students is still being worked out.

“We are excited to let folks know that our goal has been and continues to be to ensure the safety and security and wellness of our students, our staff and our community as we roll these plans forward,” Medford superintendent Bret Champion said Thursday during a conference call with local reporters. “So it is not something we take lightly in the Medford School District. The fact that literally folks are talking about decisions that involve life and death so we have spent a lot of time studying and listening and hearing voices of parents and of teachers and of students and lots of staff members and community members about what our next steps should be with all the pieces that we have.

“So we are excited that we are going to be moving forward with bringing students back to in-person instruction. We are going to do so rigorously following the protocols set out by Oregon Health Authority, working hand in hand with Jackson County Public Health and following all the guidelines from the Oregon Department of Education.”

Medford students in grades four through six will be plugged into a hybrid schedule beginning March 1, with students attending all-day in-person either Monday and Thursday or Tuesday and Friday. For them, Wednesday will also require two hours of synchronous remote learning.

Medford’s middle- and high-schoolers who choose to take part – the district is offering Medford Online Academy as a remote alternative for all students – will have a similar schedule, but for them it won’t be available until the Monday after spring break, March 29. Wednesdays are different, too – for middle-schoolers, that day is set aside as a distance learning support day; for high-schoolers, every other Wednesday is another in-person day.

While state metrics for in-person instruction are only advisory, the Oregon Department of Education has a long list of requirements for districts that choose to open their doors and it was the ODE’s guidance regarding social distancing that made it impossible for Medford to fully open schools to fourth- through 12th graders, Champion said.

“The reason we have to move to a hybrid model for our older learners is, frankly, space,” he said. “One of the requirements we have is six feet of social distancing and with our older kids those class sizes are a little bit bigger and so we don’t have as much space.”

Champion added that the district will start ramping up its limited in-person instruction offerings for middle schoolers and high schoolers next week.

Student orientations for fourth- through sixth-graders begin Feb. 22. For middle- and high-schoolers, orientations and “hybrid ramp-in” begins Feb. 16.

Central Medford High School will be open to in-person learning Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

A notice went out to district families Thursday notifying them of the in-person expansion. Families that don’t feel comfortable returning to in-person learning will be asked to notify the district and transfer to Medford Online Academy, which is expected to see a surge in enrollment over the next month.

Champion said the decision to offer only one option to families who don’t want their students returning to school – the Phoenix-Talent School District, for instance, developed a Learn-from-Home hybrid model to go with its full hybrid and the Phoenix-Talent Virtual Academy - came down to meeting students’ needs in the way administrators decided was most effective.

“We know that doing one thing well is better for our students than trying to do multiple things simultaneously and not everything gets done well,” he said.

“We talked to our teachers because they are the ones who are providing that education, and our teachers said the number one thing in bringing students back was to try and avoid what we lovingly call here in the Medford School District ‘room and Zoom,’ where you’ve got kids in front of you and you’re working, trying to maintain a class on Zoom simultaneously. So trying to maintain both of those is a real challenge for our teachers that honestly yields less than ideal results for kids. So because of that, we said then we’re going to invest in one model, and that model is, if you’re present, you’re present. Just like we’ve done school for hundreds of years, that’s how we’re going to do school here in the Medford School District.”

The mass email blasted out to MSD families Thursday included a link to the Medford Online Academy registration page. Those planning on transferring to MOA must register by Jan. 29, and will be getting several reminders to do so between now and then.

“I can promise you there will be multiple parent communications coming out focusing on that because that is a critical piece for our ability to open responsibility – knowing exactly how many students are planning on coming to Medford Online Academy so we can staff appropriately,” Champion said.

The COVID-19 safety measures recommended by the Oregon Department of Education in its Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance, which includes facial coverings and social distancing, will be strictly enforced at every school, Champion stressed. Families will also be required to sign a “social contract” pledging to wear a face covering, maintain six feet of distance from others and wash hands regularly while in school.

“Mask breaks” will be implemented for the youngest students, but only outside and only while six feet of social distancing can be maintained. Other than that and health-related exceptions that come with a doctor’s note, Champion said, the face coverings mandate is “non-negotiable.”

Champion also revealed more details about the COVID-19 testing slated to begin at each school site beginning March 1. Every student will go through a health screening before entering a building, and those that exhibit symptoms or had recently come in contact with somebody who tested positive will, after parental permission is granted, take a self-administered COVID test.

“It is a nasal swab but it’s not the giant nasal thing,” Champion said.

The result will come back immediately and if the student tests positive, they’ll be quarantined. If the district experiences an outbreak, it will look to Jackson County Public Health for direction.

“Every case is different,” Champion said. “We work to do contact tracing, we work carefully to see who needs to be quarantined and there has never been a request from Jackson Count Public Health that we have not followed. And so we continue to follow exactly what they recommend because we believe that schools can help mitigate this if we act swiftly and follow the best science from our health experts.”

The district is also asking families to identify their needs regarding bus transportation and after-school care. Complicating the bus route scheduling is the matter of social distancing, which is why communication coordinator Natalie Hurd said the district is encouraging families that can to either drive or walk their children to school.

“It’s also going to be a little bit chillier,” Hurd said, “because we’re going to be opening some of the windows in our buses, so we’ll be encouraging folks to bundle up.”

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

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribunePhaedra Ricci practices on an electrial training board with her teacher Daniel Smalley looking on at North Medford High School. The Medford School District announced today that it would be reopening to full-day in-person instruction in mid-February.