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Medford School Board asks Gov. Brown to open schools

The Medford School Board unanimously passed a resolution Thursday urging Gov. Kate Brown to reevaluate the metrics for reopening schools and prioritize the return of all students in grades K-5, “with an ultimate goal of returning all students to school.”

Resolution 2020-7, which passed 7-0, was sent to Brown Friday along with a letter that summarized the board’s position that Brown should prioritize reopening schools “by establishing metrics that follow the science and align with many states and countries which have prioritized education first and foremost by reopening schools, or delegating authority to local districts to decide when it is appropriate for these students to safely return to school.”

The resolution and letter was signed by all seven board members and is the first step in a campaign designed to whip up regional support for reopening schools. A letter to the “Southern Oregon Community” that summarized the board’s stance and included links to the resolution and a “support form” was circulated Friday, and the board is expected to reach out to other Southern Oregon school boards in the coming days.

Board Chair Jeff Kinsella said he hopes that if the move garners enough support regionally, perhaps Brown will reconsider the county-by-county caseload metrics mandates that have forced local schools to offer mostly remote learning with only limited in-person instruction.

“I am trying to be optimistic,” Kinsella said, “and I think that one size does not fit all, and I think the governor is beginning to realize that. I believe that if we can show them that we can do this safely, take all the precautions to protect the students and the staff, that this can be done successfully.”

The board addressed potential safety concerns in the letter, noting that while the district has had cases, “it has not had a single outbreak.” The letter also revealed in vague terms the limits of comprehensive distance learning, explaining that “despite heroic efforts by MSD teachers and staff who are working harder than ever before, there are currently undeniable setbacks to student’s (sic) educational and mental health due to comprehensive distance learning.”

When asked to elaborate on that point, Kinsella said he has witnessed some of the “online training” firsthand and can attest that it’s a challenge for everybody involved.

“The teachers are doing the very best they can, but if there’s not a parent there to help monitor or even help the child with the school work, we don’t know how much is getting done,” said Kinsella, a retired teacher. “And sometimes the parents are overwhelmed because they’ve got multiple kids at multiple grade levels attending online school and they’re going back and forth. So it’s hard to know how much they’re getting, it becomes more of a challenge to assess them and make sure that they’re paying attention throughout the whole series of lessons that are being given.

“And then there’s the social-emotional component — they’re not out socializing, they’re not hanging out with other kids in school, they’re not interacting with their teachers, and we all know that a good education begins with a good relationship and a good understanding of the child’s needs and wants and learning about that child and building trust with them.”

The board passed the resolution nine minutes into Thursday’s meeting then spent another 30 minutes talking about what comes next, including strategies concerning how to spread the word.

Kinsella said Friday that the idea for a resolution was hatched about a month ago when board member Cynthia Wright drafted a letter intended for Brown and Colt Gill, the director of the Oregon Department of Education. The board eventually decided instead to create a resolution it could submit to Brown and forward to other boards across the region.

The board will ask other school boards whether they would be willing to support the resolution or use it as a template for their own version.

“That way we’d have a unified message coming from Southern Oregon,” Kinsella said.

At least one regional school board — Klamath Falls — has already drafted its own resolution, Kinsella said.

The 577-word resolution essentially lays out the board’s arguments for a return to in-person learning. It asserts, among other things, that “teachers are the number one reporters of abuse, and abuse reports are down significantly in our county and state ...;” that “pediatricians have weighed the substantial harm to children and parents from keeping schools closed and recommend offering in-person learning;” and that “findings from other states and countries where schools reopened are demonstrating that schools are not super spreader events, but in fact serve as guardians against transmission because social distancing and masking are adhered to, contact tracing is performed, and robust communication with local public health authority occurs.”

The entire document has been posted on the Medford School District’s website (medford.k12.or.us), as has a link to the support form.

“The more people that we can get on this, I think, the larger the impact,” Kinsella said. “It’s like a vote. ... And if there are more votes it makes a stronger statement.”

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

The Medford School Board and superintendent Bret Champion, top right, discus a resolution during a meeting Thursday which urged Gov. Kate Brown to prioritize the return of students to in-person instruction.