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Medford schools react to new COVID guidelines; staffing remains an issue

Liam Lusch works on online educational material provided by Griffin Creek Elementary School from his home in Medford. Mail Tribune / file photo
While it follows the latest coronavirus prevention measures, Medford School District says short staffing is a struggle to keep classes in-person

Fresh off of meetings with the state’s health and education agencies, the superintendent of the Medford School District said that as the omicron variant persists, challenges remain with keeping schools open and navigating ever-changing coronavirus prevention guidelines.

Bret Champion spoke to the Mail Tribune Wednesday after hearing from both the state epidemiologist and education superintendent about those new measures, which includes shortening the COVID-19 quarantine and isolation periods down to five days for students and staff, and changing the definition of “fully vaccinated” against the virus.

“The reason why it feels like the environment keeps shifting is because the environment keeps shifting,” Champion said. “With the omicron variant doing what it’s doing across the state and nation, it’s just shifting the context somewhat and the state is trying to keep up.”

The new guidance says students or staff ill with COVID-19 can return to class or work as long as they’ve completed five days of isolation and are fever-free for 24 hours with improved or no symptoms. The same window of time now applies to students and staff who are quarantining, but it is recommended they get a test after five days prior to returning, and they must wear a mask back to school.

“It’s just about getting adults and kids back in school if their symptoms are improving,” Champion said, before adding, “we’re still required to maintain a healthy environment. We’re not talking about people coming back sick.”

Pressing state officials during this week’s call, Champion said they told him that “fully vaccinated” for school employees would not mean getting a booster shot.

“I am relieved that we don't have to re-gather information,” said Champion, referring to the Oct. 18 deadline employees had to tell the state they were vaccinated, had sought an exemption, or if not, risk termination. “That’s now been done. We will ask them, ‘Hey, are you boosted?,’ as it relates to quarantine — not to be employed.”

While Champion believes the new coronavirus prevention guidelines will have a positive impact on his district, he said challenges remain.

When the Oregon Department of Education announced late last year that it had enough test-to-stay kits for all school districts, Medford schools announced they had an abundant supply.

This week Champion said the district is “running low” but could not say how many kits were left, as the supply for each school is managed by officials at each location.

“There are tests; it’s just a matter of getting them to us,” he said. “We have ordered them, they are getting shipped out (from within the state). We were relieved to hear that.”

Trying to figure out the latest COVID-19 prevention measures and explain them to constituents — as Medford schools has done — seems like a lesser issue to Champion than the one he wants to focus on: keeping kids in school amid staffing shortages.

“Do we have enough adults in all of our buildings to ensure our kids are safe? We talked to principals today and … it is a true struggle every day,” he said. “There are classrooms that have to be filled in creative ways throughout our school district just because we have so many people out at a time.”

Champion remains optimistic Medford schools will not go entirely virtual — as Ashland High School has for the rest of the month. Instead, he envisions “micro-distance learning” should situations warrant that.

“If we have to do it, we want to do it at the smallest unit possible,” Champion said.

As of now, only one class is entirely virtual at Washington Elementary School. Throughout the pandemic, classes have moved virtual “occasionally,” the superintendent noted.

“We make those decisions on a regular basis,” Champion said. “At this moment, we are not anywhere near the district shutting down for comprehensive distance learning for everybody.”

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