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ODE update clears way for local schools

Three days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its physical distancing recommendations for schools the Oregon Department of Education followed suit, announcing a change Monday that could lead to fully reopened schools across Jackson County.

ODE has decided to adopt the CDC’s recommendations and lower its mandatory physical distancing between students in schools from 6 feet to 3, a move that will make it possible for schools that qualify to return to classrooms at all levels.

“With the new recommendations for physical distancing from the CDC, I know I join students, parents and educators across Oregon in welcoming the news that months of scientific research clearly demonstrates the risk of COVID-19 transmission is low in schools,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said in a news release announcing the move.

Every elementary school qualifies for the change, but for middle and high schools to welcome back more students, the county in which they reside must have a COVID-19 case rate that’s below 200 cases per 100,000 residents for the previous two-week time period. According to Jackson County Health & Human Services, the county had 373 new COVID-19 cases between March 7 and March 20 — that’s equal to a rate of 168.6 cases per 100,000.

The Medford School District scheduled a virtual press conference an hour after receiving the news and had announced ahead of time that the district’s elementary schools but not its middle and high schools would be able to adopt the change. The press conference was delayed an hour after a cursory review of local infection rates revealed that Jackson County currently qualifies for an across-the-board switch.

Medford Superintendent Bret Champion said the change was great news for local families because it means that barring another curve ball from the ODE every student will return to full-time in-person learning before the school year is over, but he added that it will take time to make all the changes necessary to bring fourth- through 12th-graders back full-time.

“As I mentioned to everybody at the end of last week, this does not change anything for the week after spring break,” Champion said. “The district is on spring break this week, so we’re going to let our educators have spring break and then luckily we have started planning for what moving to 3 feet will look like. We actually have, right now, folks moving furniture into all of our buildings to allow for 3 feet, and as soon as we are back Monday we will continue our planning around things like transportation and cafeterias and what it will look like for scheduling and how we make sure that everything works well.”

Champion added that school schedules will not change between now and the end of next week, Friday, April 2, and that any schedule changes on the horizon will be announced ahead of time.

Other school districts throughout the valley were also digesting Monday’s news. In Eagle Point, Superintendent Andy Kovach said middle- and high-school students there likely wouldn’t be able to return full-time until the start of the fourth quarter, April 12. Central Point Superintendent Samantha Steele said leaders there would meet this afternoon to begin planning.

The most challenging aspect of Medford’s eventual full reopening is the schedule. Every school in the district has one which was built to conform to the ODE’s previous guidance, and special limitations related to the 6-foot rule. Medford School District opened up to students in kindergarten through third grade four days a week starting Feb. 22 (K-1) and Feb. 25 (2-3), but fourth- through sixth-graders have been limited to two days per week since returning to in-person instruction March 1, and middle- and high-schoolers will have a similar hybrid schedule when they return Monday.

How long it will take to redo those schedules is difficult to predict, Champion said.

“(The schedule) is crazily wonky,” he said. “You would think that you could just put them all together, but that’s not the way that the schedules were built. So that’s going to take a little bit of time to get rolling. I don’t know exactly how long it will take, but we’re talking weeks not months. We’ll be moving as quickly as we can and we also need to give our teachers an opportunity to kind of shift the approach that they’re going to be taking.”

Champion also said it’s possible that fourth- through sixth-graders will be the first of the hybrid cohorts to return to full-time in-person instruction because schedules at the elementary level are easier to reconfigure. Also complicating matters is the district’s current bus-driver shortage.

If it takes two to three weeks to return all of Medford students to full-time in-person instruction, that will leave only about nine weeks before school is out for the summer. When asked if putting students and staff through yet another major change with only about two months left in the school year was even worth the trouble, Champion was emphatic.

“It’s a moral imperative to get our kids back as soon as we can,” he said. “The reality is, this comprehensive distance learning has been devastating to a number of our students, and in part because we are social creatures. So the sooner we can get kids back to be in community the better our kids’ mental and social-emotional health will be.

“It will also help us for the fall. The reality is, if we don’t act on this — if we just stay because it’s easier for the adults — then we’re doing ourselves a disservice for the fall. By actually doing it this spring, we will be able to launch in the fall fully confident that we’re going to be able to bring the highest-quality education that we can to our students.”

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

Mail Tribune Photo illustrationThree days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its physical distancing recommendations for schools the Oregon Department of Education followed suit, announcing a change Monday that could lead to fully reopened schools across Jackson County.