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Phoenix-Talent schools stretch out

Like every other school district in Oregon, the Phoenix-Talent School District had already developed its COVID-19 operational blueprint and was still handing out Chromebooks so students could access its “comprehensive distance learning” program when the Almeda fire swept through the area during the first day of school, Sept. 8.

Now, two weeks after more than 2,800 buildings, most in Phoenix and Talent, were destroyed by the fire, the district’s roughly 560 high-schoolers are poised to open up their laptops Wednesday and begin something called “distance learning.” The “comprehensive” part has been lopped off necessarily, Superintendent Brent Barry said, and there’s no use sugar-coating it. Kindergarten through eighth-grade students begin Monday.

District employees were busy distributing Chromebooks Monday and Tuesday from most of their schools. Sitting behind a table next to three co-workers Tuesday afternoon at Orchard Hill Elementary, where the gym has been transformed into a donation center for displaced families, Phoenix-Talent media manager Brenda Selee said about 80 people over the past two days had dropped by to pick up the laptops. The district is handing them out to families, whether they were already issued one before the fire, she said, no questions asked.

“We’re not going to charge them for them, of course,” she said.

And if a family can’t make it to one of the pick-up spots, Selee added, the district will work with them to make sure they don’t go without.

“Either they can come to the school, and we’ll meet them or bring them out to them,” she said. “We have loads of them going out to The Expo, where we have families set up. We’re checking them out to them and then taking them out to them, delivering them. So we’re doing everything we can just to get it to them, whatever it takes.”

The Expo, in Central Point, is an appropriate distribution point for many reasons. The site emerged as the county’s largest location of emergency aid immediately after the fire, and is still home to dozens of displaced families. On Tuesday it opened a “Connection Station,” a “one-stop, safe and trusted location to meet with local agencies and help you connect to services,” according to The Expo’s Facebook page. The Phoenix-Talent School District recognized The Expo’s significance to the district’s displaced families early on and has included it in the evolving distance-learning plan.

The Phoenix-Talent Children’s Activity Center at The Expo is available to parents to drop their kids off while the parents navigate the services available there. Also, the district has created a “Pirates Cove” in the back of The Expo’s Olsrud Building, where students can log in to classes (free Wi-Fi is available) from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday to Friday. Breakfasts and lunches will also be available at the site, according to Tiffanie Lambert, Phoenix-Talent’s assistant superintendent of academics and student programs.

Classified staff members will be at The Expo to help students, Lambert said. The room can easily hold at least 20 socially distanced students. Eight showed up Tuesday, and Lambert said the district is expecting 15 to 30 on hand when classes begin Wednesday morning.

“We have our graduation coaches [there], so some familiar faces that can help students get access to be with their teacher and provide any tutoring support if needed,” she said.

The district has also opened up the new “Pirate Pad” at 3275 Avenue G in White City, close to White Mountain Middle School. That site, Lambert said, also includes Wi-Fi access, Chromebooks for students who need them and meals. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, and during that time food, supplies and clothing are being distributed in a “self-service style.”

It’s an important site for many, according to Yaneth Garcia, a bilingual student support specialist for the district.

“There are families, a lot of Spanish-speaking families,” said Garcia, who was at Orchard Hill Tuesday handing out Chromebooks. “Hispanic families have gone there just because there are a lot more people there who speak their language. There was even a taco stand that came — they were living in Phoenix and couldn’t get to their house but they wanted to help.”

The Pirate Pad will also be staffed by district teachers, Lambert added. White City, she said, seemed like a good location.

“We had a lot of our families that headed out to their families and friends in White City, so we discovered that we had a large number of students that are temporarily staying out there,” Lambert said. “So we thought we’d meet them where they’re at and provide access to classrooms — there’s a supply distribution site there — and be a support there.”

Lambert said she has no way of knowing how many students will use the Pirate Pad.

Also, the Medford library is letting the Phoenix-Talent School District use its conference room, which will be staffed from 10 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday. Chromebooks and Wi-Fi will be available there, too. Wi-Fi is also available from the parking lots of every school building in the district, Lambert noted, and families that cannot pick up their Chromebooks are asked to call the Care Line: 541-821-7135 for English, and 541-821-7697 for Spanish.

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

Lonna Engle gives Phoenix High School freshman Anahi Guinac a Chromebook Tuesday at Orchard Hill Elementary School. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune