Looking ahead with optimism
St. Paul School District is one of the smaller district's in the mid Willamette Valley, a stature that may prove advantageous this year as schools seek the means to navigate back toward some semblance of normality.
The distance learning model that took its foothold last spring as COVID-19 crept into the region while touching all parts of the world will continue to be the norm going into winter term 2021.
SPSD Superintendent Joe Wehrli apprised the district at the end of 2020 that the distance learning model remains intact, but Gov. Kate Brown announced earlier that "health and safety metrics that are in place and were required for districts to meet prior to allowing students back in school will become "advisory" and will no longer be a mandate as of January 1, 2021."
That change from mandate to advisory affords school 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 getting students back into 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 Marion County Health Department, teachers and the community to develop viable solutions. Wehrli said a committee has been formed to explore the possibilities, and he plans to have at least an outline prepared for the district board for its January 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 (prefer) working from the classroom."
Wehrli said the district has 250 k-12 students, and 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," he said.
District officials project that the first students who may return to in-person learning would likely be 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.
But the superintendent also cautioned that community-wide metrics are not anywhere close to being met, as yet. As the number of positive and presumptive virus cases have increases considerably over the past few months, Marion County has also been one of the areas affected a higher rates per capita.
Not surprisingly, district officials keep 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 December 30 not 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, and St. Paul's 97137 zip showed 35 total cases as of January 2. By comparison, Woodburn's 97071, had 2,343; Brooks' 97305 had 2,234; Gervais' 97026 had 289; Mount Angel 97362 had 168; Hubbard's 97032 had 268. Central Salem and Keizer have had 2,440 and 1,435 virus positives respectively.
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," Wehrli said.
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