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Scappoose to stay online-only through January; St. Helens keeping options open

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Classrooms in St. Helens Middle School and throughout the county have sat mostly empty since March.South Columbia County school districts have updated their reopening plans, taking different approaches that will see Scappoose students stay home for the rest of 2020 while opening the door for St. Helens schools to potentially bring students back to classrooms sooner.

Over the summer, both the Scappoose and St. Helens school districts had hoped to reopen with a hybrid model combining in-person classes and distance learning. But as the start of the school year approached and COVID-19 cases climbed, both districts were forced by state school reopening standards to start the year with distance learning.

The Scappoose School District will stay in the distance learning model through at least Jan. 29, 2021, the district announced earlier this month.

In order to reopen for in-person learning, districts must see three consecutive weeks where the county has no more than 10 new cases per 100,000 residents in each seven-day span and no more than 5% of tests can come back positive each week. In Columbia County, which has approximately 52,750 residents, that would mean approximately no more than five new cases per week. Statewide, similar metrics must be met as well.

The reliance on case counts and test positivity make it difficult to plan ahead with any certainty.

The St. Helens School District has opted for a plan that could allow schools to reopen sooner and also means that changes could be made far more last minute.

Superintendent Scot Stockwell notified families this week that schools will reopen one week after meeting the three-week metrics.

"Although there is a lot of good instruction taking place, St. Helens School District believes the best learning happens with face-to-face instruction. To that end, we have selected to keep our options open," Stockwell wrote.

The district's plan would notify parents after the reopening metrics have been met for two consecutive weeks. But that notice wouldn't be a sure announcement that school will reopen, because the third week must also show low case counts and test positivity results. Parents would have one week to prepare, after the metrics are satisfied.

The state has allowed some exceptions to the metrics.

Students in pre-kindergarten through third grade can attend in-person classes if the case rate for the prior three weeks is 30 cases or fewer per 100,000 residents each week, test positivity is 5% or lower, and there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases among staff or students for 14 days.

Limited in-person instruction is allowed for specific student groups who require more attention or hands-on experience, such as those with disabilities or in hands-on programs like career technical education.

The St. Helens School District has not used any of those exemptions. State data shows the district has zero students in any form of in-person classes as of the week ending Oct. 17, the most recent week for which the state has released data.

The district is now looking into starting limited in-person instruction for some students, starting "out small with students who are struggling to engage," Stacey Mendoza, a district spokesperson said.

Teachers could have five cohorts of ten students each per week, for a total of 50 students.

St. Helens also hasn't met the requirement that there are no new cases of COVID-19 among students or staff for 14 days before starting kindergarten through third grade in-person learning.

"When we have met all of the state metrics and are allowed to safely return, we plan to stagger the return of students. Returning students in stages would allow staff and students to regulate and practice protocols to ensure everyone's safety," Mendoza said.

In Scappoose, the only exception is the South Columbia Family School, a public charter school that supports homeschooling while offering one day a week in-person classes. The school has 78 students, according to state data. The school serves kindergarten through the eighth grade and has had to establish waitlists for kindergarten and elementary school grades, the school's website says.

Scappoose Superintendent Tim Porter did not directly respond to a question about if the district would use limited in-person instruction for students in CTE courses. "We are looking at ways to bring a limited number of students back under limited in-person instruction starting with Special Education students that are going through the evaluation process," Porter wrote in an email to the Spotlight.

Enrollment in the Scappoose School District has dropped significantly, as some parents have opted to move their children to a more well-established online school. Earlier this month, Scappoose School District Superintendent Tim Porter said that total enrollment was down approximately 291 students compared to October 2019.

As of Oct. 21, south Columbia County had a lower case rate than Clatskanie and Rainier, given the larger population in Scappoose and St. Helens, but the 97051 and 97056 zip codes accounted for more than half of the county's total cases.

For schools that draw at least 10% of students or staff from another county, those other counties must also meet the case rate and test positivity metrics in order for the school to reopen. In both Scappoose and St. Helens, many school employees come from Washington and Multnomah counties. Forty percent of teachers in St. Helens commute from the metro area

Locally, case counts have decreased in the past two weeks, but they are still far above the limit for reopening. For the week ending Oct. 24, the state reported 14 new cases in Columbia County, which is equivalent to 26 cases per 100,000 residents, and the week prior was equal to 30 cases per 100,000 residents. But the first two weeks of October, ending Oct. 3 and Oct. 10, saw 64 and 58 cases per 100,000 residents, respectively. Those metrics mean the county isn't just ineligible for all-ages hybrid learning, but even for in-person classes for young kids.

The case numbers are based off new cases announced by the Oregon Health Authority each day. However, on a handful of days, the OHA's reported cases per county hasn't matched up with the number of new cases announced, and the state hasn't offered any explanation for why the totals differ. The lack of reliable numbers is an additional hurdle for reopening efforts, which rely on the data.

This story appeared in the Oct. 30 print edition of the Spotlight, but has been updated online with additional information from the two school districts.

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