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Medford schools to fully reopen April 12

Perry Dudley, Medford School District Head Custodian, and Ron Havniear, Medford School District Manager, separate desks at Griffin Creek Elementary School in this Mail Tribune file photo.

The Medford School District will open all its schools to full-day in-person learning beginning April 12, with the first week to include one remote learning day Wednesday, and every week thereafter shifting to full five-day work weeks.

The announcement, outlined by the district on its website Friday afternoon, represents a significant increase in in-person instruction time for thousands of students in the district, which has offered only limited in-person instruction or hybrid learning for most of the school year. MSD students in kindergarten through third grade have been receiving full-day in-person instruction four days a week since Feb. 22, while fourth- through 12th-graders are currently engaged in hybrid learning models and are in-person twice a week.

That all changes April 12, when all of the district’s 14,000 students will have the green light to return simultaneously for the first time since COVID-19 restrictions took hold 13 months ago.

“We are so thrilled about this,” Medford Superintendent Bret Champion said. “We are making this move for a variety of reasons, and some of them include, first off, just that our students excel, they do much better when they’re with their teachers full-time, and we recognize that and celebrate our incredible educators that we have.

“But secondly, we know that hybrid teaching and learning is incredibly challenging. We have heard not just from kids and families but from teachers, talking about the amount of planning, trying to keep two cohorts straight and what that looks like. It’s just incredibly challenging, so the ability to move to full-time is a powerful opportunity for everyone so we wanted to move as quickly as possible into that.”

Champion also singled out mental health and safety concerns as the other factors that the district took into consideration when deciding to reopen fully.

The first Wednesday after the move takes effect, April 14, will be the district’s last Comprehensive Distance Learning day – specifically, asynchronous (recorded classes) learning. The following week, which begins Monday, April 19, marks the start of the first five-day in-person school week in the district since Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed an executive order to close schools March 12, 2020.

The announcement comes two weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a change in its COVID-19 guidance to shrink the minimum recommended space between children in classrooms from 6 feet to 3 feet, and 11 days after the Oregon Department of Education adopted those recommendations.

The 6-foot rule severely limited the number of students who were allowed to sit in the same classroom, so even those schools that were open often had to divide classes and make use of alternative spaces like cafeterias and libraries in order to adhere to the guidance. According to Champion, the district has measured classrooms and determined that dividing classes will no longer be necessary.

“At this point, we believe we can meet all classes,” he said. “The exception will be in areas like band. The phrase that they use at ODE is classes that have, ‘(increased) exhalation,’ I think. And we need to make sure that they’re 6 feet apart and they’re really recommending being outside as much as possible. So we’re going to be monitoring that. But it’s our believe that we’re going to be able to have everybody in our classes.”

When the new schedule kicks in, elementary schools will operate 7:50 a.m. to 2:35 p.m., middle schools 9 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. and North Medford and South Medford High Schools 8:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Central Medford High school days will be 9:30 a.m. to 3:20 p.m., and Ruch Outdoor Community School 7:50 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Tuesday through Friday.

During lunch time, meals will likely be served in shifts, and some students will be served in classrooms. Breakfast may be delivered grab-and-go style at the end of the day, but those details are still being worked out.

The district’s transportation partner, First Student, is short on bus drivers so the district is encouraging families to carpool if possible. But that problem isn’t expected to interfere with the reopening.

The district’s principals have been busy rearranging the schedules to make the switch. Champion says the consensus is that all the extra work will be well worth it.

“We have heard clearly from our families that they want to be back in-person,” Champion said. “We’ve heard clearly from our students that they want to be back in-person and from teachers that they want kids to be back. So our belief is that we’re going to see students excited to be in school. We’re going to have the best closing weeks of school we’ve ever seen in the Medford School District because students are excited to be there.

“This year’s senior prank at one of our high schools wasn’t to skip school, it was actually to show up at school. So I think we have a renewed appreciation for the incredible work that our teachers, our principals, our classified educators do in schools every day and the kind of service they offer to our entire community. And I think that renewed enthusiasm for our schools is going to resonate, not just for the closing of schools this spring, but actually for a long time to come here in the valley.”

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