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High schoolers may not return this year at all with phased-in returns and safety protocols

PMG FILE PHOTO - Corbett wont re-open schools until COVID-19 vaccinations are available to school employees.

The Corbett School Board voted Wednesday evening, Jan. 20, to delay re-opening schools until all staff have a chance to get vaccinated against the coronavirus and the suggested state COVID-19 infection rate parameters for schools are met.

Of course, when the county will meet the metrics for all grades, and when teachers will get vaccinated, is uncertain, making it difficult to predict school openings. All high school students may not be back in school buildings at all this year.

The board felt "here are things we want to take care of before we open," said Corbett board chair Michelle Vo.

The 1,200 student district was scheduled to bring back 50 students beginning Monday, Jan. 25 for limited in-person instruction. But wider opening will be delayed a while longer.

Interim Superintendent Dan Wold said that if staff get their first shots within the next two weeks, the youngest students could return by early- to mid-March.

"We would probably start with the lowest grades, kindergarten and first graders at the grade school and kindergarten through second graders at CAPS (Corbett Arts Program with Spanish)," Wold said.

But high school students may not come back at all this year.

Wold said, "By the time we stepped up to the high school students, it would be mid- to late-April, and it may not be worth the disruption to go to hybrid at that time, with five to six weeks left in the school year."

The hybrid model has "cohorts" of students in a building for only two or three days per week, and learning remotely the other days, swapping with another group of students on their off days.

"A shift to hybrid is not a shift back to "normal school." Wold emphasized. There would be "no lockers, no lunchroom, no band/choir/theater, staggered passing, and such."

"After looking at these realities, many area districts have already pushed comprehensive district learning for secondary out to the end of the school year. We haven't made that decision yet and will not without staff, student and parent input, but we are considering it," the superintendent added.

The Board voted unanimously to wait until "staff has had the opportunity to become immunized prior to starting Hybrid or Full-in-Person Instruction under COVID-19."

Teachers, bus drivers, nutrition staff and other school employees were eligible to get an inoculation beginning Jan. 25. But the statewide vaccination rollout has been slow and it is unclear when shots will be available to them. It takes about six weeks from the first of two shots for the vaccine to become most effective.

Many school employees and their unions have balked at returning to in-person instruction until vaccinations against COVID-19 are available to them.

"The difference between waiting (on vaccinations) or not waiting is only a few weeks. Why not wait? It's the safer thing to do," Vo said.

The Corbett board also voted unanimously to "agree to follow the metrics, now that we are "advisory" rather than "mandatory."

"The metrics already allow us to open for the lowest grades (less than 350 cases per 100,000 residents)," Wold said.

"We do not meet the metrics for reopening at the secondary level (less than 200 cases per 100,000). Last week we were at 294 in Multnomah County, the week before 311. If the decline continues at that rate, we will cross the 200 line in six weeks, which again puts us in early March, about the same time staff will be immunized," he explained.

The decision to meet the optional infection rate parameters was taken in part to avoid any liability issues for the district, board chair Vo said.

There is some uncertainty around a bill passed by the Oregon Legislature designed to protect school districts against lawsuits if someone gets the coronavirus from interaction with schools.

Most students across Oregon have been learning remotely, online and with work packets, since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold across the country.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, school re-openings were tied to infection rates and spread of the virus. Then, on Dec. 23, Gov. Kate Brown made those metrics advisory only, allowing school districts to make their own decisions about letting students come back to school buildings.

The state also relaxed the infection parameters on Jan. 19. Multnomah County meets the suggested levels for some students. For example, the Jan. 19 metrics say schools can welcome back elementary students if there are fewer than 350 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people averaging over 14 days and the test positivity rate is less than 10%.

According to the latest statistics from the Oregon Health Authority, Multnomah County's test positivity rate was 4.5%.

To reopen, districts still must follow 164 pandemic safety rules, including "diligent entry screening," 35 square feet of space per person in the classroom, 6 feet of space between people and a limit on how many people a student could interact with during a school day.

The safety guidelines mean that, at best, schools can offer some sort of hybrid approach with only part of a school population in the schoolhouse at once.

Other districts are also being cautious.

Reynolds School District said it would not reopen until after March 26, the end of spring break.

Gresham-Barlow and Centennial school districts have not set any potential dates for re-opening buildings.

In a letter to Centennial School District families sent out earlier in January, Superintendent Paul Coakley said "the Centennial School District will continue in Comprehensive Distance Learning for the foreseeable future."


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