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New safe learning metrics issued statewide will not help students in Marion County return to school any sooner

PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - The North Marion High School athletic facilities have been quiet since the pandemic closures. Schools in Marion County will remain closed until COVID-19 positive numbers flatten out.Updated metrics for in-person learning in Oregon schools that were announced Friday, Oct. 30, revealed that roughly 130,000 students statewide could soon return to classrooms.

No Marion County students are included in that number, however.

Gov. Kate Brown's office issued the announcement after collaborations between Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education derived at a safe plan with metrics that reflect Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance and lessons learned from school districts across the country for best practices to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in schools, the governor's office reported.

"Our updated metrics are based on the latest COVID-19 studies and data, are aligned with CDC recommendations, and bring Oregon in sync with the standards of other states like California," Brown said. "They also help us meet our priority of returning students to in-person instruction. These metrics still place a very high bar for low case counts to open schools, while at the same time providing more flexibility for our younger students."FILE PHOTO - Mount Angel School District Superintendent Troy Stoops

That bar is high enough that Marion County, which has absorbed a sizable share of the state's record-breaking numbers of positive and presumptive tests over the past week, does not come close to clearing it.

"Marion County metrics are still increasing, which keeps us from taking advantage of the changes in near future," Mount Angel School District Superintendent Troy Stoops said. "The current metrics for Marion County are currently three times the level we need to begin any in-person instruction under a hybrid instructional model. And the cases continue to increase dramatically each week."

Gervais School District Superintendent Dandy Stevens said the goal was to matriculate students in grades K-3 and then add students in the other grades slowly. But even beginning those steps appears far from happening.

Stevens attended a Willamette Education Service District meeting Friday afternoon looking for answers following the metrics announcement.PMG FILE PHOTO - Gervais School District Superintendent Dandy Stevens

"I like attending those meetings because they are smaller, and I'm able to get answers to really specific questions ... even with the new health metrics, schools in Marion County can't re-open," Stevens said. "I did ask them the question that if we took the 14-day look back and applied it to the data since this started back in March, was there ever a two week period of time when we were below 100 — which is the magic number to move toward hybrid — and the answer was 'no.'

"So with that said, I'm not sure how we are ever going to get to that number knowing that we are going into the winter."

North Marion School District Superintendent Ginger Redlinger said it will take the entire community to make it work, and key to that will be decreasing the number of positive and presumptive cases; presumptive cases are ones that have tested positive in a public health laboratory and are pending confirmation through the CDC.PMG FILE PHOTO - North Marion School District Superintendent Ginger Redlinger

"Our path forward begins with today's metric. It is a tough time," Redlinger said. "We want students back in school. The health and safety of students and staff is our top priority. We are hopeful that we can begin to bring students back as soon as the metrics allow. We hope our community will help us reduce the spread of COVID by following the guidelines suggested by the CDC and OHA."

Limited In Person Instruction

Area school districts have been able to implement some "Limited In Person Instruction" (LIPI) where heightened safety measures are enforced. Its use has been restricted to severe situations, such as students who do not have resources to participate in comprehensive distance learning models or simply don't respond to that method.PMG FILE PHOTO - St. Paul School District Superintendent Joe Wehrli

"We are still utilizing the limited in-person instruction exception in our elementary and middle/high school," St. Paul School District Superintendent Joe Wehrli said. "Students are identified based on needs; identified with an equity tool.

"With the new 14-day look back, I am hopeful that if Marion County can begin to flatten the curve and reduce the numbers of infections, we will be able to consider bringing a larger number of students in to school for instruction in the future."

LIPI is a useful tool, but also a tricky one to implement.

"We are still in comprehensive distance learning district-wide (but) we just began offering limited in-person instruction, for only a few students who are unable to access instruction from home," Stoops said. "We are planning for bringing in additional students, but we are being cautious with health and safety practices.

"Our sports are currently in 'Season 1,' participating in conditioning and workouts only," he added.

"Gervais has been offering LIPI for about five weeks now, and we are beginning to slowly phase in additional grade levels," Stevens said. "Our staff is doing an outstanding job of following protocols and our students are being very conscientious about wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing while in the buildings."

Return to normalcy

The overarching goal remains getting schools open while negotiating all the health and safety obstacles posed by the pandemic. Transitions will continue to be challenging along that end.

"Schools do so much more than teach and inspire our kids: they make sure students who are hungry receive warm and nutritious meals; they are places that provide care for students and identify those who are at risk or in need; they help provide support for students' mental health and well-being," Brown said. "Schools are at the center of it all: the personnel, teachers, nurses, counselors, librarians, and education support professionals who, every day, build the personal, individual connections with students that are so crucial to their lifelong success."

All these groups in the educational process have had to make considerable adjustments over this past year. Most had not experienced the new models, and many may see equally demanding changes while transitioning to changing models, whether it be LIPI, hybrid or another approach.

"There is so much planning for ensuring everyone is ready," Redlinger said. "Remember, no one here has run this kind of a model before, so there are many steps we must take to ensure everyone is confident they can meet the protocols, instruct students, and provide care and connection. All staff must be trained so they can follow all safety protocols when students are on campus; principals must assign cohorts and schedule transportation, and once partially opened, the work of the food service department increases."

Redlinger said challenges include training staff and the community about what triggers a 14-day quarantine.

Moreover, the district has to update its state blueprint, monitor the health of students and staff, meet weekly reporting requirements, ensure stable supplies of personal protective equipment are available and work with the county to provide family supports and counseling.

All that in addition to adjusting instruction programs.

"Those are some of the things we will be working on to move from CDL to a Hybrid model," Redlinger said. "While it appears that many of these items can be done in advance, they cannot. The work must be based on new updated guidelines, not previous guidelines, and can be continually updated from that point forward based on our evolving knowledge of what it takes to keep COVID in check.

"We are happy to do this work so students can return as soon as possible, and we need the community's help to slow the (virus) spread in our county," she concluded.

Funding for Pamplin Media Group's reporting on the impact of distance-learning on comes, in part, from the Google News Initiative.

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