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Education amid COVID-19 has been a learning experience

The names and voices may change, but the sentiments relayed over and over again to Medford Superintendent Bret Champion from students and their families have diverted very little from the overarching theme which has tainted public education here since March.

And that sentiment, delivered to Champion face-to-face, over the phone and digitally through surveys and emails, is this: remote learning, officially dubbed comprehensive distance learning by the Oregon Department of Education, is a burden for many families, and parents are concerned for the wellbeing of their children.

And while Gov. Kate Brown’s abrupt announcement Dec. 23 that Oregon schools will be allowed to open their doors to students starting Jan. 1 likely came as a relief to many, a complete return to on-site learning is still more than a month away for most local school districts, and even when it comes, regaining lost ground will be an ongoing challenge.

“Everyone didn’t agree with our decision, but I can tell you we continue to prioritize our students as much as we possibly can,” Champion said of the early days of the pandemic, when schools shut down across the state and quickly transitioned online. “We have kept students at the center of our decision-making and we have never wavered in following the lead of our health authorities, and none of that I would change.

“And so, of course, if we had known what we know now about all these things — yeah, I would have changed a lot of things a long time ago. But here we are.”

And where is “here” exactly? Medford’s most recent iReady assessments don’t indicate the doomsday scenario many had feared for grade-schoolers, and the latest enrollment figures reveal at least part of another picture. More test results are expected next week.

According to Medford’s fall 2020 reading assessments, 27% of first-graders in the district tested “on or above level,” up from 14% last year. Similar gains, though not as steep, were recorded by the second- and fourth-grade cohorts, while third-graders equaled last year’s 47% clip. Fifth-grade numbers dropped two points to 29% and sixth-grade by three points to 30%. Seventh- and eighth-graders, neither of which were tested in 2019, hit 41% and 43%, respectively.

The elementary math reports in Medford were similar, as second- and third-graders saw jumps — the second-grade cohort made a sizable 10-point gain to 21% — and the fourth- through sixth-grade cohorts saw dips to 18%, 21% and 24%, respectively in 2020.

A midterm progress report for Medford’s ninth-grade cohort — the only such report available for a high school class — wasn’t nearly as promising, however. Only 46% of ninth-graders were passing in math compared to 79% last year, and 47% were passing in English compared to 69% last year. In all, 24% of Medford’s ninth-grade cohort was passing in both English and math compared to 61% a year ago.

Champion believes those progress reports should be viewed through the lens of the CDL experience, which is why he considers another yardstick the district used last October to be just as telling, if not more so.

“Honestly, the most important measure we’ve done is a very large survey of our parents, our students and our staff that has shown areas we can make improvements,” he said. “And so we have used that to try to make improvements in this because this is nobody’s ideal. We recognize that. So we want to do as well as possible with it.”

Most of the parents interviewed at a Medford rally held in early October in support of reopening schools said that the CDL implemented by local districts for the current school year is far more organized and useful than the clunky version of remote learning that sprang up out of necessity last March and remained in place through the end of the 2019-20 school year. The popular online school platform Canvas has been adopted by most local districts including Medford, and by all accounts this school year’s online educational experience has been much more effective, if far from perfect.

Still, many families, after having gone through that three-and-a-half month stretch last spring, apparently decided they had seen enough. There are 13,935 students enrolled in Medford schools (including charters) this school year, down 533 from 2019-20 (14,468). Also notable: according to communications specialist Leah Thompson, Medford’s average daily attendance is 12,485.8, or 89.6%. And coincidently, Medford this fall unveiled its online school, Medford Online Academy, and the first-year online-only school already had an enrollment of 480 from Sept. 8 through Dec. 18.

In Ashland, enrollment is down about 10%, to 2,543 from last year’s 2,843 figure, according to superintendent Samuel Bogdanove. Most of those losses were seen in kindergarten through fifth grade, Bogdanove added, and he expects enrollment to increase once the district rolls out a fully online asynchronous option for students in grades 3-12, which is in the works.

The Oregon Department of Education’s late-arriving directives for the 2020-21 school year changed plans dramatically for some districts, and while it’s impossible to quantify its impact on enrollment numbers and each district’s readiness, Champion admitted it certainly didn’t help. Going into the last week of July, the Medford School District was still planning to bring back its 8,200 elementary students full-time, with middle- and high-school students set for a hybrid model. Then on July 28, about a month before the first day of school, Brown announced that counties would have to meet certain metrics in order for schools to reopen.

Making that announcement more confounding for local school districts was the fact that the weekly data that was initially to be used as a benchmark wasn’t readily available in a dashboard, prompting Champion to remark at the time that “the lack of available data to us is incredibly frustrating.”

Five months later Champion, ever the optimist, tried to put a positive spin on the weeks leading up to the 2020-21 school year while also recognizing its chaotic prologue.

“It turned the world upside down,” he said. “Again, right, wrong or indifferent, I don’t know. Because they were metrics that were generated by our Oregon Health Authority, we obviously followed them, and honestly we did not look back once we got that because, again, it’s all about pivoting and recovering well once you pivot. And that continues to be true.”

Looking beyond the district’s assessments, Champion says to weigh the full impact of web-based education in the year of COVID-19 one must consider every factor in play — those that are measurable and those that are not. The district-wide survey greatly informs his own view on the matter, he said, as do the countless informal interactions he’s had with staffers, parents and students regarding the remote learning experience.

Answers to survey questions and some written responses revealed concerns about remote learning, specifically students’ ability to focus amid home distractions and screen time overload. Three-quarters of staffers (75.97%) named students’ “ability to focus” as one of their biggest concerns, while 68% said the same for “too much screen time.” Another 62.3% marked “lack of motivation” as one of their biggest concerns, and “possible unsafe home environments” was clicked on as a major concern by 46% of staff responders.

Families and students surveyed also named screen time as one of their top concerns, although “lack of social interaction” was at the top of the list for both groups.

Champion suggested he has plenty of anecdotal evidence to back up those numbers, which have been used to inform several tweaks to Medford’s CDL.

“I just got off a call with a parent, sharing with me the challenges her own children are going through in this environment,” he said, referring to a local mother of two high-schoolers. “She got incredibly emotional, not about the academic side of things but about the lack of social interaction that her kids have been able to experience since March of 2020. And that is something I have heard over and over, whether it is just a sadness that our kids have felt or if it has moved into depression and eating disorders and other really challenging mental and emotional crises that our kids are experiencing.

“You know, I remind folks of what it was like for you to be a teenager and what it must feel like to be at your house with your parents — if you’re able to have a house that has parents who are able to be there — all day long and not able to get out. That is not a state that we’re designed for as human beings. So I would say that the human being challenge has been the most difficult thing. The amount of things that our kids have been forced to give up have such a negative impact on them, and I worry so much about the health and safety of our young people.”

For those students and families who named the lack of social interaction as their top concern, Brown’s announcement that schools could reopen likely came as a breath of fresh air. But how soon that actually happens locally and what form it will take is a work in progress.

Champion said Medford School District will be surveying stakeholders — that survey was released on the district’s website Thursday and will be available until Jan. 11 — and forming a task force whose goal will be, among other things, to reopen elementary schools by Feb. 15, as per Brown’s recommendation. The district will relay the specifics of its plan for K-12 students in “mid to late January,” he added, stressing that the task force will be relying heavily on the evolving science as well as the Jackson County Health Authority.

In Central Point, District 6 has announced through its website that its schools will “resume or expand” limited in-person instruction beginning Monday and that January will provide an opportunity for its five elementary schools, two middle schools and high school to “gear up for a hybrid learning model tentatively beginning Feb. 2.”

In Ashland, Bogdanove said the district is reviewing Brown’s announcement and will conduct its own survey to gauge interest in returning to school before unveiling a plan sometime in the next few weeks.

“We will be looking at a phased data-informed approach to reopening, with the health and safety of staff and students throughout,” he said via email. “We will also be working closely with Jackson County (Public) Health to help guide decisions relating to public health.”

When asked to weigh the concerns of crowded classrooms versus the social-emotional impacts of remote learning, Jackson County Medical Director Dr. Jim Shames acknowledged the friction that exists between the two and validated both concerns.

Yes, he said, there is a very real “equity aspect” that greatly impacts less fortunate students who don’t have a parent or older sibling at home. But, he pointed out, there’s also the distinct possibility that schools following safety protocols will be safer than many unregulated day cares.

“And,” Shames added, “if you throw into the mix the fact that we now have prioritized teachers for vaccination and we’re talking about a mid-February launch, it could be that one of the major factors of concern, which is putting teachers at risk, we may be able to mitigate that. So I think it’s definitely worth pursuing, thinking about, and we have to make all sorts of decisions as a society. The devil really is in the details on this one, how the schools pull it off and how we can reduce the risks that do exist.”

Champion believes the key to a successful return is teamwork.

“And so now,” he said, “it’s about how do we continue to move forward and, I will say this, how do we move forward with hope? How do we move forward to ensure a hopeful future for our kids, for our families and for our staff?

“We all need to find the light at the end of that proverbial tunnel and we will never find it — we will continue to stumble around in the dark — if we don’t recognize we’re all in this together, that it’s only together we can get out of this thing. And so, that is the part that I continue to reach back to as we move forward.”

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