Looking ahead with optimism
The St. Paul School District is one of the smaller districts in the mid-Willamette Valley, a stature that may prove advantageous in 2021 as schools attempt to resume some semblance of normality.
The distance learning model that took a foothold last spring as COVID-19 crept into the region will continue to be the norm as winter term begins.
Superintendent Joe Wehrli apprised district officials at year's end that the distance learning model remains intact, but that Gov. Kate Brown had announced that health and safety metrics that were required for districts to meet prior to allowing students back in school became advisory instead of mandated.
That change from mandate to advisory may afford districts more flexibility and opportunity for proactive solutions.
"We pretty much felt all along we could be flexible. When this started we got tape measures out in all the classrooms," Wehrli said of the district's steps in exploring possibilities for returning students to classrooms. "We believe we can do all the sanitation necessary, if we follow the guidelines, wear masks and stay within (COVID-19 safety protocol)."
Key to that is working in conjunction with the Marion County Health Department, teachers and the community to develop viable solutions. Wehrli said a committee has been formed to explore the possibilities; he presented an outline of a preliminary plan at the board's Jan. 11 meeting.
"My responsibility is to make sure everyone is safe," Wehrli said. "We are having open and honest conversations about teacher safety. Where I've landed is I'm giving teachers the options: they can teach remotely or from the class and most have (preferred) working from the classroom."
The district numbers 250 K-12 students and boasts a student-teacher ratio of about 19 to 1.
"Our small size makes us more nimble and it's easier to negotiate even when we have strict requirements," Wehrli said.
District officials projects that the first students to return to in-person learning will likely be in grades K-6. The setup in those grades is such that students remain in one classroom, rather than moving from class to class in the higher grades, creating an environment that can be more easily regulated within the safety protocol.
Wehrli also cautioned that community-wide metrics are not close to being met, the number of positive and presumptive virus cases have increases considerably over the past few months and Marion County has been one of the areas affected at higher rates per capita.
Not surprisingly, district officials have kept a close eye on Marion County's COVID-19 dashboard.
"Currently, St Paul is still experiencing a rise in cases with 31 reported on 12-19-20, five of these cases are new," Wehrli wrote in his Dec. 30 note to the community. "We will continue to watch this data closely and take it into consideration with respect to our district plan."
The county dashboard breaks down the data further by ZIP code: St. Paul totaled 35 total cases as of Jan. 2, Woodburn had 2,343.
Wehrli said no serious illnesses have been reported within the school district, but contact tracing had revealed a couple of people who had been exposed and subsequently quarantined.
"There seems to be pockets of infection (around the county) and we just want to avoid having the school be one of those," he said.
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