Despite intentions of opening to in-person education on Sept.8, Crook County School District will start most, or possibly all grades online

Well, it looks like most Crook County students will begin the new school year the way they ended the last one — learning online.

Gov. Kate Brown announced new mandates governing when a school district is allowed to open its doors to in-person education and the news was pretty discouraging. Only one county – Wheeler – currently meets the case rate and test-positive rate to allow it. So, despite Crook County School District's intentions of opening to in-person education on Sept.8, they will start most, or possibly all grades online.

Counties must have a case rate of less than 10 per 100,000 people for three consecutive weeks before schools within its borders can allow most kids back into classrooms. Kindergarten through third grade students have an easier pathway as they are allowed to return if the rate is 30 per 100,000 people or less.

The last three reported weeks in Crook County reveal rates of 20.5, 28.7 and 28.7 again. So, other than K-3 students, we have a ways to go before in-person education is even an option.

When will this change? It's hard to say. Ideally, all the mask-wearing and cautions against large gatherings and long-distance traveling will have the desired effect and numbers will start to tick back down locally and statewide. But if we have learned anything during this pandemic, things don't always work out as hoped for or expected.

The Crook County School District has tried since the pandemic first closed schools to stay ahead of the shifting landscape. Educators have considered new education delivery models, contingencies for different state mandates and more. Last time, they had to react to a statewide school closure in a matter of days. This time, they have a three-month head start.

Good thing they did, since in-person learning is now off the table for Sept. 8. Not only is the district prepared to offer distance learning again in the fall, they can continue to offer it or some combination of online and in-person education once Crook County meets case rate requirements.

As this all plays out, another debate lingers: Is it better to keep students out of schools and limit spread of the coronavirus but keep kids socially isolated, or let them get some much-needed social interaction at the potential expense of contracting the coronavirus?

Like many important decisions, there isn't any clear-cut, fool-proof answer. Pediatric medical professionals have touted the importance of social interaction for a child's mental health, giving credence to getting kids back in classrooms as soon as possible. But does that concern outweigh the risk of virus exposure?

Until this pandemic finally ends, state officials and school leaders will have to get creative and find ways to not only continue educating students outside the school building but find some way to maintain or replicate student-to-student and teacher-to-student contact.

It won't be easy or pretty – but hopefully they can find a way to make it work until a time when numbers in Crook County and elsewhere start to trend down and allow kids to return to a "normal" education environment.

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