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Schools adjust to Limited In-Person Instruction

An elementary school in Central Point opened up to 187 students over the course of a week. In Ashland, about 20 kids total entered classrooms during the same time period. And in Medford, about 100 students per building per week on average attend school in person, but that number that can vary significantly depending on the school.

Even before Gov. Kate Brown announced changes Oct. 30 to the metrics that determine which schools can reopen and which cannot, local school districts were busy determining how Limited In-Person Instruction (LIPI) — the only option available to schools in Jackson County given its high COVID-19 case counts — should be implemented in their neck of the woods.

The result has been a range of strategies that districts continue to tweak as they look to expand their offerings to students and better position their schools for a smooth reopening, should one come during the 2020-21 school year. And while the state has increased the maximum allowed cohort size to 20 students from 10 and eliminated the 250 students-per-building-per-week cap, those updates which were spelled out during Brown’s press conference are unlikely to result in each local district maximizing its LIPI program.

“It has the potential to be a real positive, getting more kids (in schools),” Medford School District superintendent Bret Champion said. “But part of the struggle, of course, is our parents are working jobs and just because we have the ability to have kids come in for a couple hours twice a week doesn’t mean our parents have the ability to get the kids to the place where they can be picked up, even on a bus. Everybody’s trying to wear too many hats in this environment. And so, honestly, yes, it’s a potential positive, and as long as our kids are limited to only two hours it is a real struggle for our parents to make that work.”

Central Point School District’s LIPI offerings are currently the most robust in the valley, as the district that includes five elementary schools, two middle schools and Crater High School had opened its doors to the maximum-allowed 250 students per week at each of its elementary schools before that cap was eliminated. The number of students who attend the district’s other schools weekly “varies wildly depending on school and program,” according to district superintendent Samantha Steele, but special programs, internet connectivity, athletics and activities are offered every day.

At Jewett Elementary School, principal Maggie Staley said her biggest concern regarding LIPI was how well the staff and students would be able to adhere to the state’s strict safety guidelines. Thankfully, she said, everybody has adjusted swimmingly.

“It’s going very well — I’m very pleased,” Staley said. “I was nervous, as anybody would be when this started. We’re all afraid of all the things. But it’s going so well. The students are coming, they’re having fun when they’re here, they’re getting to remind themselves of why they love school. We’re just not having issues. There has been no problem. The kids wear their masks; the teachers wear their masks. They sanitize. We’ve been doing a good job on that front. That’s was what I was most nervous about, but it hasn’t been an issue.”

Currently, Staley said, the school’s youngest students in the Spanish-English immersion program and high-needs students are being prioritized for on-site instruction, but soon more students will be in Jewett Elementary. Part of that has to do with the size of Jewett. Since it has 630 students, she said, it takes more than a month to get every student on campus — and, as per state regulations, each of those students is allowed only two hours per stay. Starting after Thanksgiving, however, Jewett students will be able to go to school three days a week.

“It seems big, in the sense that we could have up to probably 500 kids on campus in a day,” Staley said, “but they’re not interacting with each other. They’re still only interacting with their cohorts. All we’ve really done is increase that cohort size by 10.”

And how does Jewett plan to use that time? Currently, about seven students per day who don’t have access to WiFi are using the school’s internet pods, but most of the students are engaging in hands-on projects while there, since that’s the kind of learning that’s most difficult to replicate with Comprehensive Distance Learning.

“So, our goal has been to teach our kids skills,” Staley said, “but to also remind them that they love learning and they also love being at school. And also the social-emotional. A big part of it for us is it’s really hard on our kids to not have a lot of access to their friends or socializing time. So we spend a lot of time with that too, just that social interpersonal interaction with others.”

The Ashland School District, which has three elementary schools, a middle school, a high school and two alternative schools (John Muir Outdoor School and Willow Wind Community Learning Center), has taken a much slower approach to its LIPI rollout, opening its doors to only 20 kids per week.

That could change as soon as this week, according to Director of Programs Christine McCollom, who said the district reviews requests to join LIPI each week.

“So we actually have a bunch of students who should be starting (this) week and then our numbers will go up substantially,” she said.

Ashland’s phased approach began with a group of students whose special education evaluation was interrupted last spring when the pandemic hit. The next wave of students were those impacted by the Almeda fire. This week, students who lacked internet service were ushered in.

Standing between Ashland students and LIPI is an application process which includes an interview between the principal and student’s parents.

“It just kind of depends on what the family’s needs are,” McCollom said. “We were hoping to kind of ramp things up a little bit more at the high school about a week and a half ago but had to postpone it a little bit because of cases in the (district) community.”

The students who are taking advantage of Ashland’s LIPI were all grade-schoolers prior to this week. Now, middle school and high school students are expected to be added. When asked how many students the district will consider for its LIPI, McCollom said Ashland will take a measured approach.

“We are taking it a little bit slow, considering the number of cases in our community,” she said. “And also, one of the criteria in Limited In-Person is it needs to be for things that can’t really be done successfully online. And we have offered that to some families and they don’t want to come in. So, it’s a collaboration. And we have a process to go through. If students are struggling with online learning then they would be considered, but if they’re doing well then we would not consider them.”

Each school in the district, McCollom said, has a care team — a group of school employees that meets consistently to discuss its student body and identify challenges some students may be facing. Students struggling, either academically or otherwise, are contacted by the school.

“We look at the student’s ability to show up to class and what kind of work they’re turning in and what their social-emotional needs are and what different kinds of support they’re already receiving,” she said, “because a lot of students are receiving things like individual tutoring and those kinds of things online and sometimes that addresses the issue. It depends on the student.”

In Medford, which serves 13 elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools, the number of LIPI students per school also varies. According to communications and public relations specialist Natalie Hurd, 40 to 50 students per week attend some of the smaller elementary schools and as many as 300 make their way to North Medford High School.

Hurd said at first, the district looked at LIPI as an avenue to clear technology hurdles, offering tech support and training. It’s expanded considerably since then, opening up buildings to, among other things, some of the more hands-on courses. Last Thursday, for instance, students showed up at North Medford for a CPR class.

With the cap on the number of students who can attend each week now lifted, and in the wake of a district-wide survey that revealed a certain disdain for increased screen time, Hurd said LIPI expansion is likely coming.

“That might be a way that we could get some kids off of screens,” she said. “We know that one of the things that our families said that was so important — and students — was the ability to interact with peers. So how do we use the Limited In-Person Instruction to provide an opportunity for kids to safely interact with one another as part of their school experience?”

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

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

Molly Nutting, left, freshman, and Ashley Rowton, Junior, take a resource class at North Medford High School on Thursday. (Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune)