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Phoenix High targets Wednesday restart

Phoenix High School students who are able can resume distance learning Wednesday, and kindergarten through eighth-graders can follow suit Monday, Sept. 28, but Phoenix-Talent School District Superintendent Brent Barry says both of those dates have an asterisk attached.

Roughly 40% of the students in the district, including 80% of Phoenix Elementary students, either lost homes or were displaced by the Almeda fire, he said, and handing out Chromebooks to those students and helping them reconnect with teachers will likely be a work in progress for some time. The new estimates are a shade lower than the 50% number the district released early on, and its 10% change is a result of some residents returning to find their homes intact.

“Families just really didn’t know until they got back into their community,” Barry said.

In addition, Barry added, 25 teachers who work in the district were displaced, and while staffers were able to track down most Phoenix-Talent students within a few days of the fire, about 5% have yet to be contacted.

Still, he said, returning to school — even remote school — could be an important part of the community’s healing process.

“Creating some predictability and some routines and some structure and some support — we know when people face trauma those things are most important,” Barry said. “But we also know that emotions are still pretty high, and we still have families that may not be able to connect. We’re balancing that, but our high school is going to look to get connected again next week.

“We’ll send communications out. And again, these are our hopes and these are our plans, but as you know even in COVID it was unpredictable, and now COVID plus a devastating disaster — it’s unpredictable.”

Barry said the district was able to reconnect with 80% of its students within four days of the fire.

The district has a pretty firm handle on the Chromebook situation because its technology department is able to monitor which district-issued laptops have been turned on and which have not. About 1,000 have not been used, Barry said. That doesn’t necessarily mean that all 1,000 of those were lost in the fire, but the true figure is probably close to that number, he said.

In a district with 2,695 students, according to its website, that’s a pretty big hit.

“So we’re going to replace those and continue to try to redistribute, utilize any sort of device and connectivity in the meantime,” Barry said.

Though each of the district’s six schools survived the fire — the list includes three elementary schools, Talent Middle School, Phoenix High School and ATI Charter School — a large swath of low-income housing near Phoenix Elementary was reduced to rubble. Bear Lake Estates Mobile Home Park, located about seven blocks away from Phoenix Elementary, was right in the fire’s path.

Nobody expects those students already struggling to meet their basic needs to jump right back into school, Barry said.

“We don’t want families to worry about that,” he said. “We don’t want them to worry about getting behind or not being able to access anything. We will rebuild the pieces when we get that opportunity.”

To that end, Barry said, district administrators are looking into the possibility of reopening their school buildings for in-person learning, a move that might help parents and their children but would require a bending of the rules at the state level. Jackson County’s COVID-19 metrics still fall short of test positivity and case rate standards for in-person learning set by the Oregon Department of Education. Barry is holding out hope that there may be a way around that, however.

“We’re looking at, when we can and when we have the opportunity, trying to bring people into our buildings and seeing if we can get some leniency on some metrics that our county’s facing right now with the COVID numbers not allowing in-person instruction,” Barry said.

“We’re just thinking about that human connection, we’re thinking about social and emotional well-being, and accelerating the academic support as well. We feel like that would happen with our most vulnerable population a lot easier in person than in distance learning.”

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

Phoenix High School, with its stadium shown here, plans to reopen Wednesday. (Courtesy photo)