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While COVID-19 concerns shut down school facilities statewide, that option is not available at OYA facilities, such as MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility

COURTESY OF OYA COMMUNICATIONS - Ghost town: MacLaren Youth Correctional Facilitys outside newer units, built in 2017, have seen far less use since social distancing practices means fewer youth are out and about as they were a few short weeks ago. While school districts statewide are scurrying to implement a "distance learning for all" program under the direction of Oregon Department of Education, the Oregon Youth Authority has its own obstacles to tackle.

Adjustments enforced to combat the spread of the COVID-19 include the physical closing of school facilities, but institutions like the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility cannot shut down in the same fashion. Nonetheless, there are extensive safety adjustments to be made.

On Saturday, March 14 MacLaren suspended visitations, including residents' family members and volunteers. Moreover, classroom learning is no longer viable in keeping with safety distancing issued by health authorities. Intake has slowed considerably as well, coinciding with a slowing of judicial activity.

"School was canceled a couple weeks ago and we are still trying figure out how we can set up remote instruction opportunities," said Lindsay Keefer, a communications officer with OYA. "We don't want to halt their education, so we're trying to figure out remote learning opportunities.

"We also realize that it is important for the youth in our facility to stay in communication with family," Keefer added.

Much like senior care facilities, MacLaren has set up electronic means, such as video conference calls, to afford familial interaction.

"It is interesting in that they are used to being away from families, but this allows them to still visit with them when families can't come to the facility," Keefer said.

There have been no known positive cases at MacLaren among the youth or staff. But the facility does have medical and quarantine areas established should that condition change, and the staff has been trained to use personal protective equipment.

To further minimize the potential for a positive coronavirus case, OYA has encouraged much of its statewide staff, including juvenile parole and probation officers, to also communicate by phone rather than coming on site.

To reinforce that, OYA has emphasized communicating with the youth about the vital practices of frequent hand washing, safe distancing and immediately reporting any symptoms.

"If a staff member tested positive, any youth contact would be quarantined...for 14 days, just like if someone tested positive in an office," Keefer said. "There are medical staff on site, and any youth with symptoms would be screened."

One advantage MacLaren has in situations like this is its size. While many activities, especially indoor ones, are crimped for safety reasons, some group activities that involve 10 or fewer people, and can function with safe distancing, are able to proceed.

One such activity is an organic gardening course, working in conjunction with a CAPACES instructor, Javier Lara, in which the students can participate outside while maintaining safe distances. A staff member's Skype arrangement affords the instructor an opportunity to provide lessons remotely.

Unfortunately, the garden subsequently joined the list of areas with restricted access to enforce social distancing.

Project Pooch, which pairs MacLaren youth with dogs they can train, is able to continue, although outside volunteers who take part in it are on a participation hiatus.

"The youth continue to go to work each day, which means our internal kennel operations are as normal," noted a Project Pooch COVID-19 web update. "OYA has limited visitors to the facility, which includes visitors to the kennel, so we are not scheduling visits to meet dogs at the kennel until things improve.

"Kennel services are still available to Pooch alum and OYA staff, the dogs are just being dropped off and picked up in the parking lot."

That update also noted that Pooch events have been canceled through April, and likely longer, and outreach staff members are working remotely. Adoptions and home visits continue on a case-by-case basis.

Pooch is a proven positive at a time when OYA officials are looking for more like it.

"We are trying to get creative and provide as many opportuities as possible to ensure our youth can stay busy," Keefer said.


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