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Schools scramble after Brown's mandate

Starting Monday, March 16, all Oregon K-12 schools will be closed for two weeks as concerns over the coronavirus pandemic continue to mount.

The closure, a mandate from Gov. Kate Brown, was announced late Thursday.

“I have heard from superintendents, school board members, teachers, parents and students that it has now become impossible to functionally operate schools due to workforce issues and student absences,” Brown said in a news release. “Schools are experiencing critical shortages in staff, and superintendents are concerned for school personnel who are at elevated risk, such as those over age 60 and those with underlying medical issues.”

During the closure, school districts have been directed to develop plans for when students and teachers return that accommodate ongoing impacts from coronavirus, the release said. School staff have also been asked to finalize plans for operating the schools under the new measures. Districts will be tasked with developing plans to continue nutrition services during the closure, and are required to ensure “adequate cleaning supplies for increased cleaning protocols following the closure.”

Just prior to the closure, Brown had said closing schools would be a last resort.

The move forced local school districts to quickly organize ways to weather the shutdown, a challenge that goes well beyond providing an education plan should the closure be extended. The Medford, Central Point and Ashland school districts committed Friday to provide meals to students throughout the shutdown, although exactly how those meals will be distributed while adhering to safe social-distance guidelines is a work in progress.

Medford Superintendent Bret Champion said during a joint press conference Friday with Jackson County Medical Director Jim Shames that his district will do what it can to minimize the impact school closures will have on parents.

“We know that there are a number of our students who rely on the schools to ensure that they get meals during the day,” Champion said. “We are committed to continue to provide those meals. We are currently working with Sodexo, our meals provider. We are reaching out to some other community partners, including the Maslow Project and ACCESS, talking about how can we be hubs in our community for feeding our students. ... So more information will be forthcoming on that.

“We also know that child care will be a challenge. ... So we’re awaiting guidance from the Oregon Department of Education to understand if our buildings can be opened for child care providers. If they can, we have child care providers who are ready to go to provide some of those services for our families.”

In Ashland, where the decision to close schools was made hours before Brown’s announcement, school board Chair Jim Westrick said most of the feedback he’s received regarding the shutdown has been positive. And while some of the language in Brown’s statement was vague enough to make planning difficult, he said it’s important to remember that those making the big decisions have, he believes, a student-first outlook.

“What we’re doing and what we’re asking our staff to do, of course, is to understand that things are changing very quickly,” he said. “We know that the governor, that Colt Gill (director of the Oregon Department of Education), that they care for kids and they’re going to do their best to support us in whatever way they can. We’re going to do our best to support our teachers and staff and students in whatever way we can.”

Westrick, whose son Eli is a senior at Ashland High School, added that Ashland School District has already started ironing out contingency plans should it become necessary to “incorporate more social distance or more distance learning.”

“We’re very lucky that we’ve got everybody stepping in in any way they can,” Westrick said. “But as conditions change — and they’re changing every couple hours — we’re adjusting. Bobbing and weaving.”

In Central Point, Superintendent Samantha Steele was forced to do some bobbing and weaving of her own the past few days after the Oregon School Activities Association’s surprise decision to cancel 5A basketball tournaments in midstream.

Steele said the plan in Central Point is to revert its food program to summer rules, which will allow the district to feed breakfast and lunch to children ages 1 to 18. Three sites will be used to distribute the food, two in Central Point and another at Patrick Elementary in Gold Hill.

“We’re also considering extending that meal program through spring break, which isn’t something we’ve ever done or traditionally do,” she said, “but our concern is that there may be increased need for that this year.”

As for child care, Steele is hoping that the school’s current provider, the YMCA, will open additional sites so it can serve more kids and also increase the space between them.

Other questions that have yet to be answered include whether schools will be able to complete state assessment testing, and how assignments will be relayed to students should off-site education become a long-term reality.

Champion broke down Medford’s offerings into three tiers, with Tier 1 requiring the least amount of adjustments for students and staff. Tier 2 would include more extreme measures. If it comes to it, he said, the district may look to local television stations for help in broadcasting educational programing. No matter what, he added, the seniors will be a priority.

“One of the things we’re also committed to is ensuring that our students’ futures aren’t negatively impacted by this decision,” he said. “We don’t want to do anything that impacts (the seniors’) ability to graduate from school. So we’re working to ensure that they get the credits they need.”

That includes going forward with scheduled SAT testing Saturday, March 14.

Steele said state assessments, which typically begin after spring break, may end up being pushed back. As for regular school work, she said the district used a survey to determine the technological limits of its students and will plan accordingly.

“What’s going to be important is that we provide instruction in a way that’s accessible for all kids,” Steele said. “For us, that’s likely going to result in a hybrid model. We may have kids do some things online, we may have kids who have an analog, hard copy option.”

To Westrick, if COVID-19 continues to limit the amount of class time available to students and teachers, it may be hard to justify weeks of state assessments.

“I have to say, we spend a lot of days every year with kids testing,” he said. “And while the information is valuable, we’ll have to make a decision on that value versus the value of reclaiming those days for instruction.”

Reach web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com. Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneOregon Schools are closed for two weeks following Gov. Kate Brown’s mandate.