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Estacada schools planned to start the year with a hybrid learning model, but state mandate outlines new requirements

PMG PHOTO: EMILY LINDSTRAND - When state guidelines allow, the Estacada School District will offer a hybrid learning model where students who are learning in-person can socially distance.

In light of new school reopening standards mandated by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, the Estacada School District may be unable to begin the 2020-21 year with the hybrid learning model it had previously planned to offer.

During a press conference on Tuesday, July 28, Brown announced that prior to offering in-person instruction, the county in which a school district is located must meet multiple standards for three weeks in a row, including 10 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents and 5% or less increase in positive tests per week. Additionally, the state must have 5% or less positive tests as a whole.

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

Estacada School District leaders said it is currently too early to determine whether Clackamas County's COVID-19 cases will be low enough to offer the hybrid learning model they had planned for, in which some students would attend in-person classes for several days a week and learn online for an additional two days while a different group of students were in school buildings. Families would also have the option of having their students participate completely in virtual learning.

According to the Oregon Health Authority, COVID-19 cases in Clackamas County ranged from 34.4 and 34.7 cases per 100,000 people for most of July — more than three times the allowed number allowed by the new state guidance. During the same period, the test-positive rate was between 3.5% and 4.4%.

Across the state, Oregon's case rate per 100,000 ranged between 45.9 and 57.1 for the past several weeks. The test-positive rate was between 5.1% and 5.9%.

"One thing that remains constant is our dedication to providing high quality learning for all students. We are confident that even if students are unable to return to in-person learning on September 8th, we will still be able to support them through our virtual learning opportunity," Estacada School District leaders wrote in a press release. "The Estacada School District has built a best-in-class online learning platform, allowing students to experience school anywhere while learning daily alongside their neighborhood friends, guided by a highly qualified teacher creating individualized instruction for your child. Our district has made significant investments to ensure that we are continuing to improve our virtual school through increased technology, staff training, increased support resources for families, and the implementation of one Learning Management Platform districtwide."

Prior to the new state mandates, the Estacada Education Association approved a contract for the upcoming school year agreeing to the district's proposed hybrid model.

"People feel like realistically, this is as safe as we can get," said Estacada High School teacher and union president Heather Treanor, noting that the reopening plan included using masks, social distancing and rigorous cleaning procedures.

If a teacher or staff member is told by an administrator or the Clackamas County Health Department to quarantine because of exposure to COVID-19, it will be considered paid administrative leave rather than sick time, according to the contract.

Few counties meet reopening standards

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 those 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.

Several scenarios involving an increase of COVID-19 cases would require districts to transition back to distance learning. Schools must stop in-person classes if their 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, or if the county has 30 or more COVID-19 cases in a week and 10% or more of local COVID-19 tests are positive.

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

"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."

Jackson Hogan of EO Media Group, a news partner of the Pamplin Media Group, contributed to this story.

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