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Jackson County schools status unchanged by state switch

The Oregon Department of Education’s recent decision to temporarily suspend one of the metrics used to determine whether schools can reopen will not lead to a reopening of Jackson County schools because the county doesn’t come close to meeting the other requirement.

A memo sent to every school district in the state from ODE Thursday informed administrators that county and state COVID-19 test positivity rates, which previously needed to be at or below 5% for three straight weeks, would not be a requirement for reopening schools through the week that begins Sunday. The move, according to ODE, was in response to a lack of testing due to wildfires throughout the state.

The change meant that schools in counties that saw a new case rate of 10 or fewer per 100,000 residents for three consecutive weeks could return to in-person learning. And if they didn’t meet that threshold, another — 30 or fewer new cases per 100,000 residents — would at least open the doors for kids in kindergarten through third grade.

But since Jackson County has recorded 40.7, 32.1 and 33 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 in the most recent three-week span, local students probably won’t be turning in their Chromebooks anytime soon. And the test positivity rate will be a requirement for reopening again starting the week of Oct. 4.

“I’ll be honest,” Medford School District Superintendent Bret Champion said, “I was a little concerned because tweaking metrics and then going back isn’t necessarily a solution. And once I heard it was the positivity rate, I definitely (knew) it had no impact because it’s our actual cases per 100,000 that is the concern in Jackson County.”

Champion said Medford School District will continue on the “six-three plan,” which was laid out in early August and is approaching its first milestone. The plan calls for the district to commit to comprehensive distance learning for six-week increments while reassessing the district’s readiness to reopen three weeks into that time block in order to brace families for any coming change that may come three weeks hence.

On Tuesday, the district will announce whether the next six-week period, from Oct. 19 through Dec. 6, will be all online or include some in-person instruction. Asked about that pending update Friday, Champion confirmed that the numbers have already decided Medford’s fate, at least in the near term.

“Quite frankly, all you have to do is look at the data in Jackson County to see we don’t even have a choice,” he said. “We’re going to be in comprehensive distance learning, by the state’s definition, for at least the next three weeks, and so there will be little surprise if that’s the announcement next week. Our plan is Tuesday evening to have some information out to families.”

Champion said early reviews of the district’s comprehensive distance learning from parents have been “all over the map.” Some parents have expressed frustration with the challenge of working a full-time job while simultaneously helping their young children stay on task throughout the school day. Others, he said, have praised teachers for making the most of the situation and providing office hours for extra questions.

“Overall,” Champion said, “people are appreciative of the great work our teachers have done and frustrated that we can’t be back in buildings because we all want to be back in buildings. And we obviously want to keep our community, students and staff safe. So there’s that cognitive dissonance that we’re all working through right now.”

Has ODE given school administrators even a sliver of a reason to believe that the metrics may eventually be loosened? Champion didn’t hesitate.

“Not at all,” he said. “As a matter of fact, the waiving of the positivity rate was completely surprising. Again, I appreciate ODE trying to think of ways to help, but there has been no conversation of shifting the metrics.”

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

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