509-J schools will start fall at a distance
For schools to open in the fall, their counties must meet certain health metrics, Gov. Kate Brown announced Tuesday.
Wednesday, July 29, Jefferson County School District 509-J Superintendent Ken Parshall sent a letter to families saying at least the first six weeks of school will be online only.
In order to resume in-person school this fall, Oregon counties and the state as a whole must meet a low threshold of COVID-19 cases that only one county currently meets, according to a new mandate issued Tuesday, July 28, by Gov. Kate Brown.
The county in which a school district is located must meet these standards for three weeks in a row: 10 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents and 5% or less increase in positive tests per week, according to Brown's new mandate.
During the week of July 19, Jefferson County had 239.3 cases per 100,000 residents, and 133.8 and 137.9 for the two weeks before that. The percentage of tests that were positive was 17.5% for the week of July 19, up from 14.6% the week of July 12 and 10.1% the week of July 5.
The state must also have 5% or less positive tests as a whole, the new rule states. The state's current rate is 5.1%.
The rule is slightly less strict for kindergarten through third grade classes, and for rural school districts with fewer than 100 students. Those grades and school districts can reopen in-person education if their home counties have 30 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over seven days, the mandate states.
But Jefferson County's numbers are well above those requirements.
Last week, the Oregon Department of Education sent 65 changes and clarifications to its guidelines for schools. And Tuesday, July 28, after press time, Gov. Kate Brown held a press conference to explain new health and safety metrics that will affect whether schools will be able to have instruction onsite.
"We expected ongoing change, and quite honestly, I expect continued change," Parshall said.
The most significant guideline the district had received as of Monday, July 27, was a limit to the number of students allowed in a cohort.
"The latest guidance limited that to 100," Parshall said. "it does really restrict a normal high school schedule."
If a student would normally have seven classes of 25 to 30 students per day, the number of students they could be in contact with would be as many 210.
That's going to require creativity to get middle and high school students to stay with just 100 other students, Parshall said.
At the elementary level, that's much easier, but playground equipment would have to be cleaned between each cohort, which could mean hiring extra staff.
The district surveyed families online about a month ago, and it's distributed a new survey via email, regular mail and meal sites.
Parshall said most responses from both surveys have shown that parents want to send their students back to school under the right conditions.
"They want to make sure they feel like their student is safe," Parshall said Monday. "But we also plan for better distance learning in case we're pushed into that."
That's now the case
The district is planning to buy Chromebooks for every student that doesn't have one, as well as hotspots, though distribution hasn't been worked out yet. And Chromebooks can be used via a pin without connectivity.
"Much of it we've been able to secure through grants that we have or newly acquired grants," Parshall said.
The Oregon Department of Education also announced Wednesday that it will be providing $28.1 million in grants to school districts to support distance learning. Districts will have to apply for the funds.
Last spring, nearly 50% of the Jefferson County School District's students didn't have adequate internet access or technology to do distance learning online.
Half of the staff got professional development on distance learning, and even if students go back to school full-time later in the year, teachers, principals and parents will use Google Classroom or another format. Parshall said college students already use online tools to communicate with professors, so learning those systems will help students get ready for college.
"We're trying to find the opportunity in this challenge," he said. "For us, we had a digital gap ... as did most districts across our country. ... While we had some individuals who did that part of the work really well, it wasn't embedded, and it wasn't systemwide."
Another possibility the district was preparing for is a hybrid model, Parshall said. Students would spend time at school, but regular days or weeks would be different, and secondary students would have different schedules.
And if health metrics change, the school building could open and close depending on those shifts.
The district also has a plan for transporting students, but "it's a plan in progress," Parshall said. "They continue to modify the guidance around transportation."
Jackson Hogan of EO Media Group contributed to this report.
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