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High-stakes waiting game for students, families, teachers

It’s a question in graduating seniors’ minds from one end of the Rogue Valley to another: What will their final few months in high school look like?

“At the moment, I don’t know much about what the schools are planning to do,” Rylie Stewart, a senior at North Medford High School, said in a text late Friday morning. “I haven’t gotten any emails from the school or my teachers.”

Owen Akiyama, a senior at South Medford High School, had a steadier line of communication from his teachers, he said — mostly dealing with final exams and assignments left unfinished after Gov. Kate Brown ordered all K-12 schools in Oregon to close as a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19.

“However,” Akiyama said in a text, “I still have no idea how the next quarter is going to play out with those individual classes.”

Even as the final day of spring break for Oregon K-12 schools wound down, school community members from students to top district officials found themselves with a list of unanswered questions about the closure that will keep students and teachers out of classrooms until April 29. That’s because, so far, the Oregon Department of Education hasn’t released detailed guidance for schools about diploma requirements, remote instruction, and in Medford’s case, the grades left unresolved in the second week of March, which was supposed to be the final week of the third quarter.

Bret Champion, superintendent of the Medford School District, hoped all week to gain some clarity from the state, which he could then pass on to the principals and teachers busily preparing for a new normal. ODE released some information about remote learning and summative assessments Thursday.

But Friday afternoon, it canceled a scheduled conference call with superintendents statewide, and no additional guidance on graduation requirements was given.

“We’re pretty frustrated,” Champion said. On one hand, “I do have grace and understanding for ODE and the state. These are unprecedented times.”

Even so, he said, “that does not negate the concern and fear a lot of our teachers and students feel.”

One of the main questions is whether the state will alter its requirements for seniors to receive diplomas at the end of the school year.

The class of 2020 won’t have next fall to catch up on the instructional time they’ll be missing out on over the five and a half weeks that they won’t be in school. Local officials want to know what credits their students will need to earn, and which requirements the state might waive or be flexible on.

“Right now, we’re not sure what seniors need,” Champion said.

Though school districts are preparing various modes of supplemental education and learning supports, using a variety of media and delivery methods, that educational engagement won’t count for credit in most cases.

That’s typically because of ODE’s guidance related to that aspect of the closure, which centers on equity: that if schools decide to offer instruction for credit or assign work for a grade, those must be provided in ways that can meet all students’ needs.

That includes meeting all the requirements of students’ individualized education plans, if they receive special education, and providing adequate access for students without reliable internet connections or those who are English language learners, for example.

Oregon’s largest school districts, including Medford, have opted instead to offer what’s called “supplemental” learning, while still trying to reach every student they can.

It’s also an attempt to keep students occupied with learning without requiring parents to take on teaching responsibilities for the duration of the closure.

“The main concern that I’m hearing from parents is that, ‘I am having a hard time getting food on the table, my husband is an essential worker, I have been laid off, I have four kids, and you want me to teach my kids now?” said Natalie Hurd, communications specialist for Medford schools. “Parents are getting so stressed at this notion that I just want to stress that it is this extra thing and we’re going to push this stuff out for families to utilize but this is not a high-pressure situation for families.”

But at least one local district is planning on returning to graded, credit-bearing instruction starting next week: Eagle Point.

“We’ve been working over the past six days on a program to push our classes out on electronic platforms,” said Andy Kovach, Eagle Point’s superintendent since March 11. Prior to that, he was principal of Eagle Point High School.

Throughout the school year, students in Eagle Point work on district-provided iPads, which Kovach believes gave teachers and other staff an advantage when the option to hold class in person was removed for the next few weeks.

Marc Siegel, a spokesman for ODE, couldn’t say what the department would do if it found that a school district providing for-credit instruction during the closure wasn’t meeting the state’s guidelines.

“ODE will release guidance in the next few days that will address this question,” he said in an email.

Kovach said that district staff will work with parents to try to meet the needs of students with IEPs, which districts are federally required to follow.

“We recognize that there are concerns on the equity issue, and we believe that if we get after it and keep working at it, we can achieve that,” Kovach said. “Until we have a clear direction that we can’t do what we intend to do, then we’re going to do it.”

Central Point, which will roll out a for-credit (corrected) education plan called D6 Connected, also told parents to expect an update on graduation requirements Friday. Though no update came from the state, the most recent post on the district website said that bus routes delivering meals to students would likely also be utilized to drop off instructional material and books.

Samantha Steele, District 6 superintendent, told seniors that they would be able to speak with a counselor or a principal in the upcoming week to discuss their path forward.

“If you were ‘on track’ to graduate prior to the COVID-19 closure, you are ‘on-track’ now,” she wrote. “If you were behind in credits, we will work with you to assure that you can earn those credits and meet the graduation timeline you established before the closure.”

In Medford, a team of employees spent several spring break days cleaning and sanitizing thousands of Chromebooks, ready to deploy to students the following week.

“We want to provide high-quality learning experiences for all students, and we want no kid to be penalized because we’re in the middle of a global pandemic,” Champion said. “So we’re trying hard to figure out that balance right now.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Joe Allred cleans Chromebooks for students at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School Thursday. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune