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School district to review COVID case data monthly to determine when to reopen to in-person learning

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - State mandates force local school district to start school year online.

It's official. Crook County schools will not be able to offer in-person education to all students when the school year begins.

According to a new mandate issued Tuesday, July 28, by Gov. Kate Brown, Oregon counties and the state as a whole must meet a low threshold of COVID-19 cases to resume in-person education.

The county in which a school district is located must meet these standards for three weeks in a row: 10 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents and 5% or less increase in positive tests per week, according to Brown's new mandate.

The state must also have 5% or less positive tests as a whole, the new rule states.

The rule is slightly less strict for kindergarten through third grade classes, and for rural school districts with fewer than 100 students. Those grades and school districts can reopen in-person education if their home counties have 30 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over seven days, the mandate states.

Not only are younger children less likely to catch the disease, show symptoms of it or transmit it to others, but in-person learning is more crucial at that age, said state health officer Dean Sidelinger.

"These younger students need access to in-person education to develop literacy and numeracy skills they need that are critical to their continued learning," he said at the press conference.

A portion of Oregon that meets these standards at first but later has an uptick in COVID-19 cases could be forced to transition back to at-home distance learning.

School districts must make distance learning plans if the local county has 20 or more COVID-19 cases in a week and/or 7.5% or more of COVID-19 tests in the county are positive.

Districts will immediately return to distance learning if the local county has 30 or more COVID-19 cases in a week and 10% or more of local COVID-19 tests are positive.

"Let me be really clear: I am absolutely unwilling to lose an entire school year for any of our kids," Brown said Tuesday. "But it is also incumbent on all of us … to take every measure to slow the spread of this disease so we can get our kids into school as quickly as possible."

From April through the end of June, less than 5% of COVID-19 tests in Oregon returned positive, Sidelinger said. In July, the percentage of positive tests rose to close to 6%, he said, but it has been trending down again recently, he added.

Crook County has a had a case rate lower than 30 per 100,000 during the past three weeks, which would meet the threshold for k-3 in-person education. However, it has been trending up with 20.5 cases for the week beginning July 5 and 28.7 for the next two weeks. The positive test rate for those weeks has been 3.7% for the week beginning July 5, 4.8% for the week starting July 12 and 2.6% for the week beginning July 19.

Only five Oregon counties had fewer than 10 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents in the past week, according to state data. All five of these counties — Sherman, Tillamook, Union, Wallowa and Wheeler — are rural and relatively small in population.

When stretched out to the three-week requirement of fewer than 10 new cases per week, only Wheeler County — the state's least populous county — qualifies to re-open classrooms for all students.

The major Oregon counties with the fewest COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents were Benton and Lane counties, with about 10 and 16 cases per 100,000, respectively.

Crook County educators had hoped to open all local schools to in-person education on Sept. 8, so the decision to start most, or possibly all grades online was difficult for district leaders to make.

"We're obviously disappointed, because we know that students learn better interacting in-person with teachers and classmates," said Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson.

Throughout the summer, the Crook County School District has been developing plans to account for different developments as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. One plan includes offering a variety of in-person and distancing learning options.

When the 2019-20 school year concluded in early June, the local school district reached out to families as educators developed plans for the start of the 2020-21 year. A survey showed that some families are interested in learning more about alternative learning options. This could include remaining fully online at home or a combination of learning opportunities that provide families with greater flexibility and choice.

"The old education model is changing, and we need to proactively come up with different ways of serving families. We're developing a menu of options next year for students who may not thrive well in the traditional school setting," Johnson explained.

Crook County High School already offers an online option that is self-paced and allows students to develop their own schedule and access school athletics and other activities. Assistant Superintendent Dr. Joel Hoff, who heads up school improvement efforts, said that the goal of the school district is to build on that foundation and offer even more options to families with students in elementary, middle, and high school.

"We plan to work with families with students in all grade levels and tailor an experience that's unique to each individual child," he said. "That could include going to school in the morning and coming home and working online in the afternoon or it could mean your child remains fully online."

In addition, at a June school board meeting, the district presented several options to school board members about contingency plans in case there are any changes to school opening requirements. Johnson said then that while opening in the fall is the priority, the district is planning ahead in case there's a spike in COVID-19 cases or if the governor's office directs otherwise.

With the new guidelines, Johnson said the plan is to move forward with K-3 students returning to buildings, but the district will closely monitor case numbers throughout August. 

"We'd love to have our little ones in the classroom, because in-person instruction is critical for future success at that age," she said, "so we're keeping our fingers crossed case numbers trend down over the next few weeks."

When online education resumes for other grades in the fall, teachers plan to provide daily interactive virtual instruction, with both hands-on and digital curriculum. Workbooks will also be included and the district plans to invest in training and support for teachers, so students receive a more robust experience at home. Crook County High School will continue to offer its regular menu of online and hybrid options.

In addition, the district is launching a new option called the Homeschool Partner Program for K-8 students. Families who choose this option will educate their children from home while receiving resources, coordination and support from teachers and the school district. This includes the opportunity for homeschool students to take electives and other classes based on parent choice.

Former Crook County High School science teacher Jonny Oelkers will be the new K-8 Homeschool Coordinator and serve as the district's advocate for families who choose that option. District leaders note that he has experience in the classroom and currently homeschools his own children, so they believe he brings a unique perspective to the program.

"I'm excited about the opportunity to build long-term and meaningful connections between the school district and homeschool families," Oelkers said. "The advantage of this program over other online options is the support we can provide families by creating a more personalized experience."

Going forward, school district leaders remain committed to making sure all students are back in the classroom as soon as Crook County's health metrics allow. Consequently, there will be a monthly review of COVID case data and the district has set dates through the end of the year for a possible return to school.

Review dates include Aug. 15, for a potential school reopening of grades K-3 on Sept. 8, Sept. 15 for a Oct. 5 reopening for all students, Oct. 15 for a Nov. 2 reopening for all students and Nov 15 for a Dec. 1 reopening.

To help make distance learning more effective in Oregon schools that need to do so, Brown announced a release of $28 million of emergency funds to go toward internet hotspots, internet-accessible computers, online curriculum and teacher training.

Brown and Sidelinger also urged Oregonians to keep wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing and washing hands to lower COVID-19 numbers so students can return to class.

"We can't relent, especially if we all work together to reopen schools and get students back in desks," Sidelinger said.

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