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State bends rules, lets Douglas County high school offer in-person learning
Trisha Pederson said parents appreciated the hard work of Douglas High School staff to make a return to in-person learning Monday as safe as possible and wanted to show their excitement. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Monday felt a little like a first day of school for Douglas High. A dozen parents lined the driveway with signs welcoming students back. Freshmen were handed campus maps. A mother took a “first-day” photo of her daughters in front of the school.
The Winston school, south of Roseburg, has been open since Aug. 31, but Monday was the first day it offered in-person learning.
The Oregon Department of Education gave the high school special permission Sunday to return to in-person learning even though Douglas County is not meeting the coronavirus metrics, taking much of the fight out of teachers opposed to the move.
Last week, some Winston-Dillard School District teachers threatened to call in sick if the school reopened. Three teachers called in sick Monday, according to Principal Craig Anderson.
State rules and local decision making have collided as communities struggle to decide their level of concern about COVID-19. Teachers, many of whom are vulnerable to the disease, are caught between a desire to help their students and personal and family safety.
Nearly every student arrived wearing a mask. Staff frequently reminded students, often fruitlessly, to stay 6 feet apart and to not mingle in the hallways. School resource officers stood out front to make sure only students entered the school.
Parents and students said they were happy to have the classrooms open again.
“My grades are definitely going to go up a lot,” said junior Osten Forney.
Senior Andrew Dubie said he felt safe and in-person teaching worked better for his education.
Parent Dawn Levering said she was upset with the teachers who didn’t want schools open and she wasn’t worried for her daughters as long as the school followed safety protocols.
“They’ve needed this,” she said.
Parent Carmen Hester also was angry with the teachers who didn’t want to come to school and was glad to have her daughter in a classroom.
“I feel like it is about time,” she said. “If we can go to Walmart and Home Depot, then the kids can be in school.”
Principal Anderson said staff were a little nervous about the return, for various reasons, but students’ and parents’ excitement Monday felt good.
On Sept. 9, the school board voted 3-1 to resume in-person learning at all its schools, based on Douglas County meeting ODE’s requirement of fewer than 10 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people for three weeks. The board set Oct. 5 to reopen Douglas High School.
In the following two weeks, the county surged over that threshold. The district’s elementary and middle schools could still meet the metrics based on exceptions for K-3 classes and schools smaller than 250 students. The high school, though, has roughly 360 students.
The board believed that once the decision was made, the district moved into the less-restrictive metrics category for schools offering in-person learning, according to board members. County cases must climb above 30 per 100,000 before an open school must return to distance learning. Douglas County’s high was 22 on Sept. 20, the most recent update.
Some teachers, backed by union representatives, asked the school board and various state agencies to stop the high school’s in-person opening. Nearly half the licensed staff called in sick for a freshman orientation Thursday, and teachers talked of calling in sick again Monday.
Winston-Dillard School Board Vice Chair Brian West and Instructional Services Director Rob Boye met over the weekend with Gov. Kate Brown, ODE Director Colt Gill and Douglas County Public Health Officer Bob Dannenhoffer.
On Sunday, Gill sent West and Boye a letter saying that Douglas High School could open as long as the number of students present stays below 250. The high school’s student body has been divided in half, with each group allowed on campus twice a week.
Gill’s letter said Winston-Dillard’s understanding of the metrics rules was incorrect but acknowledged the school would have opened sooner if leaders knew they had to open before county case rates went up. Gill’s decision was buttressed by Dannenhoffer’s declaring there were no COVID-19 cases in the ZIP codes within Winston-Dillard’s boundaries.
Teacher Jason Tingle, the high school’s union co-representative, said the exception does not account for the number of staff and students who live outside the district’s service area. Gill’s letter, however, undercuts staff’s ability to legally take sick days based on a public health emergency, according to Tingle.
“All the steam our staff was going to fight with just went out the window,” Tingle said.
He said staff members could potentially lose their jobs if it is determined they misused sick time. The teachers will monitor the school’s adherence to its reopening plan and discuss with the Oregon Education Association whether there are grounds to overturn the exemption, Tingle said.
Sam Lee, a former school board member, said community members have not seen people getting sick in this area and don’t feel threatened by COVID-19.
“The community wants their schools open,” Lee said. “They are tired of their lives being all tore up. They want their kids back in school.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA