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Recent changes in school COVID metrics have opened the door to Crook County School District offering full-time, in-person education for all grades

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - So far, high school and middle school students have been attending classes twice a week. That will likley change at the end of this month as students in grades 6-12 are expected to go full time.

Recent relaxations by state government in school attendance guidelines has opened the door for grades 6-12 to join other students in attending school full time.

Crook County School District Superintendent Sara Johnson announced the possibility of going full time during the second semester, which begins Jan. 26, after the governor announced a change in school mandates in late December.

"State officials announced (recently) that they're relaxing statewide mandates and returning decision-making authority to local school boards and school districts," Johnson stated. "The COVID-19 health metrics, which determine if schools can open, are now advisory instead of mandatory starting Jan. 1."

Gov. Kate Brown announced the change on Dec. 23, stressing that "decisions to resume in-person instruction must be made locally, district by district, school by school."

"In addition to schools continuing to adhere to required health and safety protocols and working in close consultation with their local public health authority in understanding and considering the metrics, teachers, school staff, parents and students should be engaged in this decision-making process to allow schools to make the best choice for their community and their students," Brown said. Johnson said that local educators have prioritized keeping the doors open as long as it's safe for students and staff, so that will continue to be their guiding principle.

"We are so grateful for the incredible leadership of the Crook County Health Department and their advocacy for our school district," she said. "We met with their team…and they are fully supportive of schools reopening, and we will continue to collaborate with them on a weekly basis."

Johnson went on to note that the school nurses will stay on the front lines of responding to any COVID-19 cases or exposures in local school district buildings, including any decisions about staff or student quarantines. The changes have come shortly after emergence of two COVID-19 vaccines. State health leaders have prioritized vaccines for teachers in the early phases of the distribution process. Teachers aren't required to be vaccinated, Johnson said, but they will have early access.

"Parents have been asking if there's a requirement for students to be vaccinated, and the answer is no," Johnson added. "Vaccinations are a personal choice, and we learned from the health department that Crook County will be receiving the Moderna vaccine, and it's only recommended for adults 18 and older."

Transitioning from alternating, two-day-a-week cohorts to full-time in-person learning is not without its logistical challenges. High school and middle school leaders have had to adjust a variety of things to accommodate the number of students at each school while adhering to COVID guidelines.

Crook County Middle School Principal Kurt Sloper said his staff is looking at repurposing classroom space, hiring additional teachers and restructuring the bell schedule.

"We have identified additional spaces throughout the building to turn into classroom space," he said. "This allows us to have lower class sizes and provides space if or when we hire more teachers."

The middle school is currently completing the hiring process for a new sixth grade social studies teacher, which Sloper expects to lower class sizes within that grade level.

Regarding the bell schedule, Sloper said the intent is to keep groups of students separated to prevent the spread of the coronavirus throughout the school day.

"We continue to emphasize keeping our student cohorts separate during passing times between classes and during lunch," he said of the strategy.

Sloper went on to say that these plans are contingent upon a continued commitment to physical distancing, wearing masks and vigilant sanitizing practices. In addition, the current strategies will depend upon the level of student enrollment going forward.

"Currently our enrollment and available space will allow a fairly regular bell schedule where students can transition between classes. If our enrollment increases to a certain point, we may have to have students remain in classrooms and teachers will then rotate from class to class throughout the schedule," Sloper explained. "That is a Plan B and not our preference but will be the only way that we can meet the state guidelines with all students if our school enrollment rises. I would expect the threshold for Plan B would be about a 10% increase."

Johnson attributes the relaxation in state rules to the successes local schools have enjoyed while providing in-person education during the pandemic.

"I truly believe the success we've had with students in the building this year, and how we've effectively managed COVID-19, influenced the state's decision to move decisions about schools reopening back to the local level," Johnson said. "It's a testament to the dedication and care of all of our staff, and the support of our local families."


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