School districts face challenges while trying to reopen schools this Fall

MEDFORD, Ore. – Since Mid-March, Oregon schools have been forced to adapt to new learning methods in the age of this pandemic. As the first bell of the year is fast approaching, schools’ plans are constantly changing. The question still remains: how do you educate students safely?

“School reopening is going to look different than it has in the past, and whether or not kids return to school buildings we have to provide the best education to all of our kids,” Oregon Governor, Kate Brown said.

In March, Oregon educators began working from home using distance learning.

“We went to full brick and mortar to full online almost overnight,” Medford School District Superintendent, Dr. Bret Champion said.

Despite a whole summer to plan for the fall amid COVID-19 restrictions, school districts’ plans are constantly being adjusted as the state keeps updating guidelines.

“We continue to evolve and change and learn together,” Champion said.

Early this summer, most districts were planning for a hybrid model of learning with some classes online, and others on campus.

“It really does come down to our facilities and do we have a physical capacity under the guidelines that were issued to us,” Grants Pass School District Superintendent, Kirk Kolb said.

Coronavirus cases are surging in Oregon and concern is growing from both parents, teachers and school staff. The Oregon Department of Education is now providing, for the first time, target goals each district and county must hit to have any in-person classes.

“When there are lots of COVID-19 cases spreading in the community then the likelihood that the virus will spread in schools also increases,” Governor Brown said.

Case rates in the county must be below ten cases per 100,000 people for the previous seven days with less than five percent positivity rate in that same time frame. The state test positivity rate must also be below five percent for the preceding seven days.

“Not all of Oregon looks alike, and there are pockets and communities around the state of Oregon where we have relatively low virus rates,” Brown said.

The requirements for in-person classes for the youngest students, kindergarten through 3rd grade, are a little more relaxed.

“The data shows that children under ten get the virus at lower rates, get sick less often and have fewer symptoms with COVID-19 than older individuals and seem less likely to transmit the virus than with older children and adults,” State Epidemiologist, Dean Sidelinger said.

There’s still plenty of time for plans to change, and they certainly could in the next month, districts are just glad to have a baseline to work off.

“We as educators want to be educating kids in our classrooms and we only want to do that when it’s safe for our students our staff and our community,” Champion said.

Medford school district superintendent Dr. Bret Champion said which options students will have depends on what happens with COVID-19.

“It’s not like we are back to square 1, but it’s like we are back to square 1.5,” Champion said.

Every local school district wants to open its doors this fall and understand the importance of doing so. Medical professionals agree. They say returning to school is important for a student’s development and well-being. Remote learning carries unique challenges. That’s what the Grants Pass School District discovered this spring.

“What we found was the initial engagement for students and families was relatively high,” Kolb said. “As time went out and we got into April and then through May folks were getting more and more disengaged.”

The logistics of getting students fully back in school are still being worked out, and present different challenges for each school district.

“It definitely will cost the district more, we have to make a larger investment in chrome books for student use, we need to invest in this new learning management system which is not cheap,” Kolb said. “It’s about 550 per student and multiplied by about 6200 students, so those are two big investments

“The reality is we’re having to spend some money we hadn’t necessarily planned on because we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” Champion said.

With big questions still unanswered, school districts have only a few weeks till school returns and a lot to figure out before that first bell rings.

School districts in southern Oregon are holding informational sessions next week to discuss reopening schools virtually. Grants Pass School District 7 is holding at least two virtual informational sessions next week both on August 6th, you can find more information here.  Medford School District is holding a virtual town hall on the 5th one for staff and the other for families to talk about updates to its back to school plan, you can find more information here. Eagle Point School District is holding a virtual information session on the 4th for families, you can find more information here.

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