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Medford schools ask for local COVID-19 control — again

back to school with covid-19 3D rendering
The school board unanimously approved a letter to Gov. Kate Brown

For the second time in recent months, the Medford School District has asked Gov. Kate Brown for local control of measures to mitigate COVID-19.

At a public work session Dec. 2, board members approved a letter urging a “return to local decision-making,” citing, in part, the decline in coronavirus case rates and the availability of a vaccine to students and staff.

“We make this request with full understanding that operating our schools in a world of COVID-19 is challenging, and may well require difficult, unpopular decisions,” the letter stated. “However, the MSD Board believes that this responsibility belongs with them, the elected Board of Directors for this school district.”

If the governor consented to the district’s request, however, changes to COVID-19 policy requirements would not be immediate, board members wrote.

Instead, the empowerment of local control would “begin a discussion with local public health and our community regarding what makes the most sense for our students and staff,” the letter stated.

The board members ended their letter by stating, “[p]lease, Gov. Brown, trust school boards to make decisions that are right for THEIR communities.”

In an interview before the meeting, board Chair Suzanne Messer said she and other board members had met with the governor to talk about local control in September, after the board had sent a similar letter.

“There’s no matrix that says ‘we hit this number — OK, you’re good to go,’” Messer said. “There’s nothing; it’s nebulous, ‘we’re just going to keep doing this.’ We would just like this local control back like we had last summer.”

One aspect that was not explained in the letter was the cost of non-compliance with the state’s COVID-19 measures. Messer told the newspaper that the fines can be “pretty steep and quite onerous” — up to $20,000 — as well as impact teachers’ licenses.

The district already works with Jackson County Public Health on implementing COVID-19 policies, but officials feel their hands are somewhat tied, as Superintendent Bret Champion noted both in an interview earlier this week with the Mail Tribune and during a discussion with the board Thursday.

One example of a policy that is difficult to implement effectively without local control is test-to-stay, which the district announced it started implementing this week after the Oregon Health Authority and the state’s Department of Education announced there are enough test kits for schools to do it.

“Test-to-stay has virtually no impact in the Medford School District because we have mitigated COVID-19 to the point where kids, largely, they’re not catching it at school,” Champion told board members. “That is the one place where you can use test-to-stay, so it’s not helpful.”

The state’s announcement last week explicitly said test-to-stay may not be used following extracurricular exposures, nor community or in the home.

That’s why “local control” of COVID-19 mitigation strategies would involve the district and Jackson County Public Health looking for ways to use those tests on students who caught the novel coronavirus outside of the classroom, Champion explained.

“That's the kind of thing we’re thinking about — working with our local health authorities to make decisions that keeps kids in school and everybody safe,” the superintendent told board members. “I think the letter is lovely, and we fully support it.”

Board member Tod Hunt questioned how effective the letter would be when, after the board sent the first one in August, the governor mandated masks indoors and outdoors. He also noted a slew of other measures the state is considering, including a student coronavirus vaccination requirement and a mobile app that would allow residents to carry digital versions of their COVID-19 vaccination status.

“I just want you to be aware of some of these challenges we’re going to be faced with when we’re asking for local control,” he said. “We’d better get it.”

Messer explained to the board that the most recent letter came about after discussions with other school district boards, who initially thought a joint letter to the governor would be best. However, it was ultimately decided every district has unique needs and the individual boards would write separate letters.

“This is going to be one letter of what’s going to be many to make that voice heard,” Messer told fellow members. “I like that this is not just us saying, ‘we want this alone,’ but it’s the entire community in Jackson County, Josephine County … saying, ‘we want control of our area with our local authority, making sure we’re making good decisions.’”

In an interview, she explained the significance of the board approving the letter, which passed unanimously.

“(Champion) could write a letter, but it doesn’t necessarily hold the same political power and influence and advocacy as what the board does because we’re representing the families of our district,” Messer said.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to the Mail Tribune’s request for comment.

To Messer, it doesn’t matter whether the board is sending another letter to Brown for the second time despite not achieving its original goal.

“I don’t care if it makes a difference or not,” she said. “What makes a difference is, we’re trying, for our students, to do what’s best for them. If we don’t advocate for something different, then nothing’s going to change at all.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.