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Medford schools: State COVID-19 policies are promising

Ahead of the ability of schools to make masks optional starting next week, Medford School District’s superintendent outlined Wednesday what the state’s revised guidance will mean for students and staff.

Bret Champion spoke on the heels of the Oregon Department of Education’s announcement on how the “Ready Schools, Safe Learners Resiliency Framework for the 2021-22 School Year” would change to be consistent with the Oregon Health Authority lifting of the indoor mask rule March 11, which is a Saturday. Students will return to class March 14 for their last week before spring break.

The “Resiliency Framework” is the guiding document on COVID-19 mitigation strategies for all schools to follow. What Champion considers the “banner headline” of its revisions is the fact that schools will not have to contact trace, because the practice has been found to have little impact on lessening the spread of COVID-19.

“It is in fact a game-changer for us in the Medford School District, and honestly, across every school district in the state,” Champion said. “(No more contact tracing) is huge, because what it means is that our students will be able to stay in school and … our school administrators and office staff will be able to focus on their actual job of educating kids.”

Throughout the pandemic, school staff and the health department contacted people who were possibly exposed to COVID-19. The practice meant mass quarantines for students who were exposed to coronavirus, even if they were just a few feet away from an infected person and not showing symptoms.

“We know what it looked like when we were having to send literally hundreds of kids home who weren’t sick … when they were in the vicinity of the contact-tracing requirements,” Champion said. “We're so thankful that we’re not having to do that because it’s going to keep kids in school.”

Natalie Hurd, a district spokesperson, talked about how mandatory contact tracing impacted district families at critical times of the school year.

“I can remember, as we approached spring last year, our administrators grappled with the notion of having to call a family and say, ‘your student can’t attend graduation because they have been identified as a close contact of COVID-19,’” Hurd said. “Hearing the OHA say today that contract tracing has very limited impact at this time on the current strain of COVID-19 was a huge relief.”

Without contact tracing, ODE’s guidance starting March 12 said schools are “strongly encouraged to provide cohort notifications when exposures occur.”

Champion was asked several questions about masking, including whether it would have been a good idea for face-covering to be optional before the state lifted the order. The superintendent named a number of reasons why it would not have been the right thing to do.

“If you go mask optional before this takes effect, then suddenly you're thrust into that quarantining world that we were in prior to the new rules. It definitely would have kept kids out of class more,” Champion said, while also noting the potential legal challenges and loss of funding. “All of that has a cumulative effect on the district, and there’s just an inability to focus on the main thing.”

His remarks on the timing of the end of the mandate came after his school board had a spirited discussion about masks on Feb. 17, after the state had announced the mandate would be lifted on March 31.

The superintendent was also asked about OHA’s eventual lift of the mask mandate and how that would mesh with local guidance.

A provision in the March 12 Resiliency Framework says the CDC “now recommends universal masking in K-12 during high community levels,” but regardless, “individuals may also choose to mask based on their individual risk assessment.”

Those provisions are notable, both because of Oregon’s infection rate and that the Medford School District, as have other K-12 jurisdictions, passed measures asking the state give them “local control” of COVID-19 mitigation measures.

Champion noted a meeting district officials will have with Jackson County Public Health to clarify what the rules will be March 11.

“I would predict they’ll be … looking at where the colors currently land, and Jackson County’s in Orange,” he said. “That’s why we appreciate local control. … So we have not heard from Jackson County Public Health. It wouldn’t surprise me if they track right along with OHA.”

Asked whether he foresees challenges with optional masking, Champion acknowledged there are some. One is the ability for other people to accept one’s right to still wear a mask or not.

“Now, we’re going to have this hybrid thing, so continuing to work with kids and adults to make sure (they understand) both are fine,” Champion said. “This offers an opportunity to remind ourselves and our students to lean into empathy and recognize the needs of others. We’re trying to keep everything simple and be graceful in our responses.”

He closed by saying the district is “excited about moving into this next phase” of having local control, but even that does not come without challenges because it requires schools to do more than just react to an overarching rule.

Once local control comes March 12, Champion hopes the conversation pivots a little more away from COVID-19 and into substantive education issues such as giving students “a pathway that they’re excited about.”

This story has been amended to reflect the school board’s position on masking in K-12 institutions. Despite a spirited discussion by certain board members at a Feb. 17 meeting, the board as a whole never advocated for lifting the mandate prior to the state lifting it. The board only advocated in letters to the governor for "local control," which asked the state for permission for the district to work with local health authorities on COVID-19 mitigation strategies before the mandate ended.

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