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Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Second-grade teacher Kellie McCollum helps a student with an assignment Tuesday at Washington Elementary School in Medford.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Second-grade teacher Kellie McCollum gives students an air high-five Tuesday at Washington Elementary School in Medford .
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Second-grade students raise their hands Tuesday during class at Washington Elementary School in Medford.
Districts expanding in-person instruction likely to stick with new schedules

Jackson County schools that greatly expand their in-person instruction offerings next week following the latest guidance from the Oregon Department of Education will not be required by the state to switch back even if the spread of COVID-19 pushes Jackson County into the “extreme risk” territory, according to ODE’s Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance.

Most local school districts are planning to offer in-person instruction four to five days a week in every school beginning Monday (Tuesday in Phoenix-Talent), a switch that comes following ODE’s decision to follow recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce the allowable distance between students from 6 feet to 3.

For middle and high schools, however, that 3-feet recommendation extends back to 6 feet should the county COVID-19 case rate exceed 200 per 100,000 people over a 14-day span, an increase that would halve the number of students allowed in school buildings. A brief surge of 418 new cases in Jackson County between March 21 and April 3 pushed it to the edge of that threshold with a 188.9 case rate, but the county is still considered in the “green” zone on Oregon’s color-coded guidance chart for schools.

Since the county avoided that mark, local districts can move forward next week with their various in-person expansions. And once they do, it’s very likely those new schedules – Medford, Central Point, Eagle Point and Phoenix-Talent are all ramping up in-person instruction next week – will remain in place for the rest of the school year even if COVID-19 cases begin to spike, thanks to a provision recently added to the RSSL guidance.

The latest iteration of the Oregon Health Authority’s 88-page report, version 6.4.2, addresses how districts should proceed should the county in which they reside see a COVID-19 surge past the 200-per-100,000 case-count mark, and it’s the note marked in red lettering on page 21 that could end up saving local administrators the trouble of overhauling school schedules yet again.

“If schools have met the requirements and begun operating,” it reads, “and then metrics move to a more restrictive threshold (yellow or red), schools are not required to shift from operating with 3 feet of physical distance to 6 feet of physical distance. A Local Public Health Authority, in partnership with the school and district leadership, may call for a shift in physical distancing requirements, including in response to an outbreak or transmission within the school.”

The RSSL guidance goes on to note that what constitutes a transmission within a school is up to the local health authority – here, that’s Jackson County Public Health. In general, though, local health authorities are directed to “look for at least three cases with likely in-school transmission over the prior four weeks.”

In Eagle Point, where in-person instruction will increase to five days a week at the middle schools and four days a week at the high school starting Monday, Superintendent Andy Kovach acknowledged that even though a state-mandated return to CDL is off the table, metrics-watching is likely here to stay for the foreseeable future so long as local health authorities can impose their own shutdown.

“Our biggest preference is that the county does not get to that state between now and June, and if they do then we’re going to have to go back to the drawing board,” he said. “There’s a possibility that we would have to pull back to a hybrid or even to a CDL, and that’s just the truth of it. And that’s what at this point we think we’re going to be facing next year as well.”

School districts are in constant communication with Jackson County Public Health, added Joni Parsons, Eagle Point’s director of school improvement and curriculum. If there’s a surge of cases, they’ll quickly work together to determine whether the spread occurred within the school or in the community. In-school transmission could lead to a shutdown, but a built-in two-week buffer is expected to make that possibility less likely.

“(Jackson County Public Health) communicates with us when we have a positive case, and we communicate with them when we hear that we have a positive case, then do contact tracing and make decisions about what we’re going to do,” Parsons said. “So far, so good. … And regionally, we have a meeting every Thursday for half an hour. Also, the doctor who does a lot of the guidance with the local health authority (Jackson County Medical Director Jim Shames) joins us for that meeting to answer questions and kind of give us a handle on what’s going on.”

Phoenix-Talent School District Superintendent Brent Barry pointed out that expanding in-person instruction soon after the ODE adopted the 3-foot rule could prove crucial, since thereafter only a directive from Jackson County Public Health could force a district to reverse course. A district that has not yet implemented the changes, however, would be stuck with its current schedule should the county surge into the “yellow” or “red” zone.

“Once we’ve started that, we’ll certainly still work with our county health department,” Barry said, “but once we begin that and all the safety protocols are happening, we are OK to continue with that blueprint of 3 feet. For schools who haven’t started it, it would be tough to start it when you’re in extreme risk. I don’t think you can at that point.”

Barry’s right. To Kovach, though, denying students as much in-person instruction as possible poses its own risks.

“We’re 15 months into this pandemic,” he said. “We have an opportunity to review some of the decisions that we as a country and as a state and as a county made early on. One of those was, I think, schools are essential things, and we didn’t do that in the beginning. We had people working in Walmart, and liquor stores were open, bars were open, but schools were shut down. I believe that we’ve kind of come to the realization now that schools shouldn’t be one of the first things to close down as COVID numbers start to go in the wrong direction.”

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