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The school board passed a motion to suspend a policy to allow the immediate purchase of tents for outdoor lunches and lectures. 

Schools in the West Linn-Wilsonville school district will now be able to purchase tents and tables for outdoor meals and instruction.

According to previous district policy, no purchases more than $150,000 may be made by any employee unless the expenditure is approved in the budget by board action or policy. The West Linn-Wilsonville School Board held a special meeting on Sept. 17, to consider the policy and, after some deliberation, voted unanimously to suspend the policy.

"Due to the tight time constraints of trying to prepare both large event tents and enough picnic tables to distribute across the entire district, using the policies that are prescribed in law will exceed the timeline we have available. We simply can't buy things fast enough if we have to go through a full RFP (request for proposal) process," Pat McGough, chief operations officer for the district, said.

Despite the school district having "state of the art" ventilation systems in buildings, the need for outdoor spaces stems from a recommendation by the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority. There have also been numerous requests from within the community asking for students to have the choice to eat outdoors if they wish, according to board members.

In early September, concerned parents in the school district released a statement and petition, outlining their desire that the school board issue a policy for outdoor lunches.

"School lunches are an area of high risk for the spread of COVID-19 as students are unmasked and apparently often unattended at the upper grade levels. It is our desire that students eat lunch outdoors with proper social distancing of at least 6 feet while unmasked," the letter read.

Board members Christy Thompson cited the district's commitment to listening to the community.

"What I appreciate about our district is, we're a district that listens to our community, and I know that that has been a concern in our community," she said.

Some board members had concerns about cost and the longevity of purchase.

In total, the supplies — including 26 tents, enough picnic tables to distribute across the district and other accessories — will price out at approximately $300,000 and will be an investment for the district, said McGough. With the rainy season approaching, the tents can be used for other functions, such as outdoor sporting events.

"There are all kinds of flexible uses for them," he said, "so it would be an asset into the future."

The utility of the purchase will extend beyond an optional lunchroom as well, as a few teachers have requested access to outside spaces to facilitate classes. McGough anticipates the tents will be distributed to all primary and middle schools.

"We are holding on to the high schools based on the feedback we've gotten from principals and the assistant superintendent, Dr. (Jennifer) Spencer-Iiams …we're not sure they're needed yet. But we certainly are flexible enough to put them at the high schools as well," said McGough.

However, the tents will not be heated. Heating options like propane torch heaters or electric heating would be a "futile effort," according to McGough, as they would never provide enough heat for the occupancy. There are also many risks associated with heating a tent in a school setting.

Half of the tents are set to arrive Oct. 15. Another shipment is estimated to arrive the following week.

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