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COVID-19 metrics impact Medford schools reboot

The Medford School District will soon lay the groundwork for an eventual transition to on-site learning, though its implementation is at least several weeks and possibly months away despite the new, looser COVID-19 metrics that determine which Oregon schools can reopen.

Under the new metrics released Friday morning by the Oregon Department of Education, counties with fewer than 50 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people and a test positivity rate lower than 5% over 14 straight days are eligible for on-site learning, while 50 to 100 cases per 100,000 and a test positivity rate between 5% and 8% places a county in a hybrid of on-site and comprehensive distance learning.

Jackson County was within striking distance of the hybrid model about a month ago, but the spike in COVID-19 cases since then has pushed the possibility of both the full on-site learning and hybrid model out of reach.

Over the most recent 14-day period measured, the span from Oct. 18 to Oct. 31, Jackson County recorded 412 positive tests for an average of 186.17 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents and a test positivity rate of 9.3%.

Medford School District Superintendent Bret Champion said Monday that he experienced a range of emotions upon receiving the updated guidelines. Although tossing out the statewide positivity rate requirement was a move that was generally applauded throughout Oregon, Champion said the switch to using a 14-day time block — previously, novel coronavirus data from each of the previous three weeks were used to determine which counties were eligible to reopen — merely “confused matters greatly.”

“The first time I read it,” he said, “I read it that the new numbers were with fewer than 100 (cases) per week you could come back. Well, it wasn’t. It was fewer than 100 per 100,000 for 14 days and you could come back. So honestly, my first reaction was one of jubilation, and then I realized that in fact it was 14 days. Then (my reaction) was one of great sorrow because I was aware of what the numbers were and continue to be in Jackson County.”

According to a snapshot chart released by the Oregon Department of Education Friday, Jackson County is one of 12 counties in the state not yet eligible to reopen schools. Another nine counties are “elementary eligible” — schools can begin phasing in K-3 then K-6 students when their counties qualify for the on-site and distance learning hybrid — and 15, including Josephine County, are “K-12 eligible.” Overall, ODE announced, 129,942 of the state’s roughly 581,000 public school students are now eligible for in-person instruction.

Once Jackson County qualifies for either full on-site learning or the on-site and distance learning hybrid, it will likely take time to make that transition. Exactly how long may depend on the plans that will be drawn up in the coming weeks.

“Again, we continue to go with the same goal,” Champion said. “We want to offer a high-quality education without compromising the health and safety of our students, our staff and our community. So what does that look like? We now have new metrics that we know we are going to be able to hit because we have hit them. So we’re going to start the planning process now so that when we do hit them consistently for that 14 days we’re able to more quickly make the shift into maximizing the number of students who are with their teacher.

“One of the things we know without a doubt is that for school to work well our kids need to be with our outstanding educators. What the exact details of that are I can’t speak to yet because we don’t have the plan.”

Champion said when the plan is implemented, it will only work if everybody involved is on board.

“Honestly, some of it will have to do with ensuring that there is a lot of buy-in across the system,” he said, “because our educators need to buy in and be part of it, our parents need to buy in and be part of it and our students need to buy in and be part of it, and that just takes a little bit of time and communication and feedback loops.”

In a way, Champion suggested, school will have to be reinvented, if only while the virus is still a threat. That’s why in-person school will likely look far different than it did when the doors closed to full classrooms last spring.

“It is a complicated endeavor to transport, feed and educate students on site, just like it’s a complicated endeavor to do the same off-site,” Champion said. “So to bring everybody back isn’t as simple as making schools look like they did on March 12. It won’t. Six feet of social distancing is in place. That is a huge burden to get large numbers of kids into a classroom. It is not a burden because it’s keeping kids safe; it’s a burden simply on the number of people you can have in a room.”

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