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Local COVID Metrics improve enough to allow grades 4-12 to return to classrooms

FRANCES CHANEY - Patty Bates, youth transition specialist, gives Crook County High School students hand sanitizer as they enter the school Monday morning.

It's official, grades 4-12 can finally return to local school buildings.

Crook County School District received some welcome news from the Oregon Health Authority last Monday evening. The county met the state metrics to allow in-person education for all grades.

Upon learning the news, Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson sent a letter to the Oregon Department of Education declaring the school district's transition to a hybrid model.

"It's the understatement of the century to say we're thrilled to welcome the rest of our students back to the classrooms," she said. "Students learn best when they interact face-to-face with teachers and other students, and I know our parents are ready for schools to reopen."

District leaders stuck to their plan to wait one week after becoming eligible to invite students back to the school buildings. Johnson explained that it was important to take a week and make sure everything was ready to go. School district staff communicated throughout last week with parents about what to expect regarding everything from bus routes and daily schedules to safety for students and other questions.

The district decided to bring fourth and fifth grade students back full-time, starting Monday. Students at Crook County Middle School and Crook County High School, meanwhile, begin a hybrid model this week with a rotating schedule because of space limitations and social-distancing protocols required by the state.

According to CCMS Principal Kurt Sloper, middle school students are divided into Blue and Gold cohorts for each grade level. The Blue group attends school onsite Mondays and Wednesdays, and the Gold group attends onsite Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fridays will be comprehensive distance learning for all students.

"On the two alternating days per week that students are not on campus, teachers will still be posting lessons and learning opportunities," Sloper said.

Crook County High School will also utilize a Blue and Gold hybrid model. A freshman orientation was scheduled this past Thursday. Those freshmen are joining sophomores this week in the Blue group while juniors and seniors will comprise the Gold group.

According to a CCHS Facebook post, the hybrid model will continue at the high school for the duration of the first semester. When the semester concludes, on Jan. 22, high school leaders will re-evaluate the systems to determine if they can accommodate more students in the building at a given time.

As students return to class, the schools will implement several health safety features, including temperature checks at building entrances, required face coverings inside the schools for both staff and students, and hand sanitizing or washing stations throughout the buildings.

The return to in-person instruction for grades 4-12 is not expected to impact families enrolled in the Crook County Online option or Homeschool Partner Program. Those programs are still available to families who prefer their children continue learning from home because of health concerns.

The county made the cut to reopen all grades by the slimmest of margins. Going into the week beginning Sunday, Sept. 20, the county had kept its new COVID case load under 10 per 100,000 people – or less than three cases per week – for two out of a mandated three consecutive weeks.

Initially, that data was rendered moot because the metrics for grades 4-12 included a requirement that the state positive test rate be 5% or less. During the two weeks when Crook County met the case load metric, statewide positive test rates had risen to 5.1% and 5.7%. However, the Oregon Department of Education announced Friday that it was suspending the statewide testing metric for September because of all the massive wildfires in Oregon.

With that metric off the table, the school district had reached Friday, Sept. 25 hoping no new cases were reported that day or Saturday. With two cases already reported that week, another one would put the county over the mark for reopening classes.

Another case was reported Saturday, however, the school district learned that this coincided with Oregon Health Authority reclassifying another local case that week, reducing the weekly total to two.

"We are so excited," Assistance Superintendent Dr. Joel Hoff said Tuesday. "It's a great day for the Crook County School District."

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