Two weeks after Gov. Kate Brown announced that metrics for returning to in-person instruction would become, starting Monday, Jan. 7, advisory rather than mandatory, local school districts are reaching out to families and staff to gauge their comfort level with returning to school while also measuring out the steps necessary to greatly expand in-person instruction.
School districts in Medford, Eagle Point and Ashland all either released surveys or had planned to soon as of Thursday, and Eagle Point School District is targeting the most ambitious return in the valley, with Superintendent Andy Kovach saying Wednesday that Jan. 25 is that district’s “contingency A” restart date for kindergarten through fifth grade.
Medford released a survey on its website that has already received more than 4,500 responses from families and 1,100 from staffers, while Ashland and Eagle Point have similar surveys in the works which, like Medford’s, will be used to help administrators determine how best to proceed.
Central Point Superintendent Samantha Steele said the feedback her staff has received, based on the number of families who have chosen not to participate in limited in-person instruction, “is overwhelmingly in support of in-person learning,” and that District 6 is tentatively planning to begin a hybrid learning model across all grade levels Feb. 2.
“The hybrid plans differ from school to school because of capacity issues — schools with lower enrollments will be able to accommodate more students per day than schools with larger enrollments,” said Steele, whose district is composed of one high school, two middle schools and five elementary schools.
“I use ‘tentatively’ because we are still waiting for information from the Oregon Department of Education regarding the requirements for initiating ‘in-person’ learning outside of the metrics,” Steele said. “Also, it seems as though virtually anything we plan is vulnerable to change in this situation.”
That update from the ODE is supposed to come no later than Jan. 19, as per Brown’s request in her Dec. 23 announcement. Brown’s open-ended directive, the fourth of five actions listed in her statement, seemed to leave room for more changes: “I’m directing OHA and ODE to evaluate and provide any needed updates, based on scientific data and evidence, to the appropriate thresholds for resumption of in-person instruction.”
Those updates could sideswipe any plans districts make between now and then. That’s what happened back in July, when new state metrics severely altered reopening plans for Jackson County schools, essentially making full in-person instruction an impossibility. Medford Superintendent Bret Champion said the planning is ongoing but details likely won’t come until after the ODE’s announcement.
“We are working through a number of processes as we think about what the model will be as we move forward,” he said. “We’re just not sure what exactly it’s going to look like for us to come back. I guess they’ll have updated guidance coming out Jan. 19. We’re hoping that week to be able to announce what our plans are — that keeps us on that six-three rhythm. That would put us, if we’re going to do something, probably around mid-February.
“Again, that’s our best guess at this moment. But what exactly that is we don’t know yet. We have a variety of models that we are considering and looking at, and this ODE guidance will help determine what’s feasible inside our building. Because they’re looking at a variety of updates to the guidance based on the science and the research that continues to emerge as this pandemic evolves.”
One thing Champion can count on is that most of the families and teachers in the district will be ready and willing to return to school once full in-person instruction is implemented. The family survey, which will be accessible through the district’s website (www.medford.k12.or.us) through Monday, includes four questions: Which school does your child attend?; Has your student attended LIPI this year?; How comfortable are you with your student returning?; What feedback do you have for the reopening task force?
According to Champion and communications and public relations specialist Natalie Hurd, 4,537 responses from families were submitted as of Wednesday afternoon. Of those, a little over 50% were comfortable with returning “with no to few concerns,” which was one of four options for that multiple choice question. About 23% were comfortable “with some concerns” and 17%-18% were “not comfortable due to many concerns.”
The teachers were slightly more apprehensive about returning. According to Champion, roughly 33% fell into the “no to few concerns” category, 33% were “comfortable with some concerns” and most of the rest were “not comfortable due to many concerns” — the fourth possible answer was “not able due to medical necessity.”
Champion said he has been in constant contact with Troy Pomeroy, the president of the Medford Education Association. The local affiliate of the Oregon Education Association represents all of Medford’s teachers.
“We have a great relationship,” Champion said. “We all have the same goal, which is to do good things for students while ensuring the health and safety of our students, our staff and our community. We all want those same things, so it continues to be a positive conversation moving forward.”
Champion added that ultimately, the district’s senior leaders will decide what its in-person expansion will look like, but the 32-person task force composed of staffers, parents, students and administrators will have a lot of say. The task force met for the first time Wednesday.
“And then as scenarios emerge,” he said, “this task force will be able to give us feedback and offer suggestions about what might be possible. So this advisory task force is going to be very helpful as we design the launch of our next plan.”
In Eagle Point, Kovach said the reopening plan for K-5 students would fall into the definition of a hybrid model — that is, a combination of in-person instruction and comprehensive distance learning — but the square footage available in the district will make it possible to bring in the entire K-5 student body.
For students in grades six through 12, he said, the district is tentatively planning to divide students into two groups and have them come to school on alternating days.
But many knots must be untied between now and that targeted Jan. 25 return date, he added, noting yet another wrinkle — the question of whether in-person instruction will nullify the liability shield for those districts that take the plunge. According to a report issued Wednesday by the Oregon School Boards Association, “an outside legal opinion commissioned by OSBA said the liability protection would likely not apply if schools open contrary to the metrics. The law does not distinguish between advisory and mandatory.”
And don’t get Kovach started on Oregon’s sluggish COVID-19 vaccination rollout. If Eagle Point’s teachers don’t get vaccinated, it’s possible the district would have to settle for “contingency B,” which would be an expanded LIPI, dubbed “super LIPI.” If, on the other hand, the district gains access to the vaccine, Kovach believes that, with the help of the communities’ doctors and nurses, his entire staff could receive the first shot of the two-shot series in one day.
“I’m ticked,” he said. “I’m responsible for 500 employees and over 4,000 students, and if we could at least have some knowledge about it — it changes all of our discussions with the union, with our staff, with our parents — we could really make hay.”
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or email@example.com.