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Local high schools plan for reopening of facilities

As Jackson County moves through a phase one reopening of the state amid the coronavirus pandemic, local schools are doing their best to take proper action toward making their facilities available again for sports despite a cloud of uncertainty.

The Oregon Department of Education (ODE) recently clarified that a directive from Gov. Kate Brown, in conjunction with the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), that school facilities remain closed through June 30 should be interpreted to mean that those facilities are closed through the end of the school year for each institution.

As a result, that means that any school that chooses may open its sports facilities beginning the following weekday so long as they abide by phase one mandates, especially health screenings, 6 feet of social distancing and a maximum group size of 25.

“The biggest thing for us is we really are excited to be able to get kids back together,” said Crater High athletic director David Heard, “and I think the kids are excited to get out of the house.”

“The excitement is we can start talking to kids again and meeting with kids, even if it’s in small groups,” he added. “I feel like it’s an important step for kids and coaches for their mental and emotional health, too. They miss each other and miss being a part of a team and doing things together, so I think they’re super excited about reconnecting.”

When that reconnection process begins and how it looks will depend on each school since Tuesday marks the end of the Oregon School Activities Association’s governing year.

“The thing about it is for the state level, local level, national level or worldwide, there is no playbook, there is no precedent with all this,” said Ashland High athletic director Karl Kemper. “We’re making it up as we go, kind of like we did with the smoke here three years ago.”

Crater’s school year ends June 12, and Heard has already sent out plans for his facilities to reopen June 15. Similarly, Ashland’s school year ends June 5 and Kemper said his facilities would open in limited fashion the next potential day, which is June 8.

Cascade Christian athletic director Nate Mayben said the Challengers’ school year ends June 3 but their facilities will not reopen until June 5, which would coincide with Jackson County’s potential 21-day move into phase two of the governor’s plan after the county began phase one May 15.

Only the Medford School District could match Cascade Christian, a private Class 3A school, in terms of earliest potential reopening date with June 4 serving as its last contracted school date, but district athletic director Amy Tiger said they will wait to determine a reopening date once all factors are mitigated for North Medford and South Medford high schools.

“The priority is the safety of students, the safety of our adults and the safety of our community,” said Tiger.

“It’s going to be an individual district by district decision,” she added. “Districts will have to look at what resources they have because there’s some pretty stringent things with cleaning. If you do look at all the guidelines, there’s a lot of things that you need to be able to have in place and ready to go (before you can reopen).”

Likewise, Eagle Point (last school day June 10), Phoenix (last school day June 18) and St. Mary’s (last school day June 19) are currently negotiating all the expected protocols before they announce a reopening date.

“We want to make sure we have all the safety protocols,” said EP athletic director Ryan Swearingen. “Once we feel that we have a good protocol in place, then we’ll be releasing that all out. Right now, we’re preparing for anything and everything.”

All local reopening dates, however, expect to be well before the original June 30 deadline.

“We want our kids back with our coaches and our coaches are excited to get back with our kids,” said St. Mary’s athletic director Jamie Young, “but we want to be there for the long haul. We want to make sure that we’re healthy and that nobody is being put in harm’s way in any way and the people in our community feel comfortable with what we’re doing. I think that’s probably the same with every school.”

“Everybody wants to be safe,” he added. “No one wants to start something and then have to shut back down again.”

As a means of helping schools navigate such uncharted waters, the OSAA released phase one recommendations this past Wednesday regarding summer activities that align with OHA directives.

The detailed guidelines, which will be followed in the coming weeks by phase two and phase three recommendations, were not intended to be prescriptive but rather give local administrators a base to create their own guidelines for reopening facilities.

“It was nice to get that word from the OSAA to get some guidance from them,” said Phoenix athletic director Dave Ehrhardt. “Obviously once the school year ends it’s kind of open season, but it’s great that they’re helping us out with that because I think it would’ve been pretty scary if we were just kind of left to our own devices there as schools.”

The OSAA phase one guidelines factored in extensive cleaning of facilities and athletic equipment after each use, as well as directives toward entrance/exit strategies, limitations on gatherings, pre-workout screenings, face coverings, hygiene practices, hydration/food restrictions, travel, locker room and athletic training areas.

The group then went into additional sport-specific recommendations, most of which pertain to social distancing — with zero contact allowed — and the practice of no shared equipment (i.e., balls, bats, gloves, etc.).

“Some of them are super challenging,” said Kemper of the OSAA guidelines, “like you can’t have two kids touch the same ball. In basketball, OK, maybe that works, and in volleyball to an extent you can do some individual stuff, but what do you do in baseball or softball or even football? You can’t play catch or anything like that.”

That’s where you will have to get creative during the initial phase if you choose to adopt the OSAA recommendations to the letter, according to Mayben.

“We’re all going to be focused on first getting our kids conditioned and making sure they’re going to be healthy and safe moving forward,” said Mayben. “I think the last thing on everybody’s mind is throwing a baseball or throwing a football, it’s all about conditioning right now and getting kids back in shape.”

“The hope is by the time we get to that point where we’re able to meet with kids and condition and get back in shape,” he added, “that hopefully we’ll be in that phase two and being able to share a ball is something that is OK and no longer a guideline for that next step.”

The consensus among the athletic directors is that they will root their reopening guidelines within the foundation provided by the OSAA, and continue to do so as Jackson County hopefully advances in the statewide phases. The OSAA phase two recommendations are expected around June 5.

“We’ll work obviously with the things that the governor has said and we’ll also work with our local Oregon Health Authority as well as the guidance that was given by the OSAA,” said Tiger. “It’s much more specific and so we’ll obviously look to probably follow those pretty closely. I don’t think there’s anything that conflicts with other orders necessarily, there’s just kind of a few grey areas.”

Kemper agreed, noting liability reasons alone make sense to align with the OSAA standards. He added, however, that the recommendations were left open for individual discretion since each community in Oregon is different when it comes to the prevalence of COVID-19 and its transmission.

“I’m sure coaches will want to negotiate terms, but we don’t want to put kids in harm’s way,” said Kemper. “That being said, Jackson County is in great shape. We haven’t had a new case in weeks and it may be close to a month now. When they put those guidelines in place, there’s counties with hundreds of cases and growing, and that’s not where we are.”

“It’s tricky anytime you go through this stuff because health and safety is at the forefront of everything we do in education,” he added. “Above and beyond everything else, we want a kid’s school experience to be healthy and safe. That is our primary responsibility. But, man, the kids are chomping at the bit to get out there, so we’re going to give them something.”

With all of these efforts, however, comes the unknown associated with any pandemic.

Like an Oregon spring, you can plan for certain weather but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what you’re going to get.

“It’s just one of those things where everything has just evolved week by week,” said Tiger. “The hard part is you can’t project too far out into the future, and that’s not how any of us are put together. We’re used to planning farther ahead so that’s the hard part. The OSAA hasn’t made any decisions about fall sports yet, either, so we still have a few things to play out in terms of that to see how that goes as well.”

In the interim, though, something is better than nothing and each athletic director expects all those who utilize their facilities to toe the line when it comes to supplied guidelines. Policing each group may not be possible on a daily basis, but how they handle their opportunity will dictate the future.

“You just trust that they’re going to do it,” Heard said of guideline adherence. “What I told my coaches in the email I sent is that how you do in this phase determines how quickly we move forward. That’s the deal with us and that’s the deal with society. How we deal with these phases determines how quickly we get to go to the next one, and how much sooner we get back to normal.”

Have a local story idea? Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Oregon school facilities have been closed since March 13 but gyms like this one at South Medford High may reopen in June under stringent guidelines.