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In-person waivers raise school district calls for more exceptions
The Holiday Farm fire burned around the McKenzie School District campus, destroying or damaging some structures. The district was granted permission to fully open to students but isn’t in a position to bring students to campus yet. (Photo by Rachel Baker, OSBA)
The Oregon Department of Education showed flexibility this week with its COVID-19 metrics, but that leaves some school districts outside looking in.
The metrics set a coronavirus-case bar for in-person learning, a bright line between state control and local decision-making. But as ODE grants exemptions, including for districts hard-hit by September wildfires, it faces increasing pressure from mostly rural districts eager to reopen their classrooms.
“We’re trying to balance consistency and clear expectations while navigating what are really nuanced details,” said Scott Nine, assistant superintendent of the ODE Office of Education Innovation and Improvement.
Officials tried to create a statewide science-based framework that gives schools guidance on opening while leaving the details to school boards and administrators. But some school districts, struggling with distance learning’s failings, want more consideration of local conditions and community desires.
Nine said that in mid-July when ODE was developing the metrics, some school leaders clearly were feeling overwhelmed by being thrust into the role of epidemiologists. School leaders asked for guidance, he said.
ODE, the governor’s office and the Oregon Health Authority have worked closely to give schools direction. That guidance is evolving as it is tested and new science emerges, Nine said. On Tuesday, Gov. Kate Brown announced the state would re-evaluate the metrics.
Nine said the metrics were designed to have custom applications for individual situations but that creates complexity. The metrics could be made simpler but that does not necessarily mean the standards will be relaxed, he said. He said there is also the possibility of little to no adjustments.
“We’re trying to have those metrics make sense in a very geographically spread out state with very different-sized schools,” Nine said. “We are not trying to get into a waiver-by-district process or a customization district-by-district process or an exception-to-an-exception process.”
Rural schools have pressed to resume in-person learning despite high county case rates. Larger districts have sought program exceptions, such as child care for high school students in limited in-person teaching, Nine said.
He said state leaders have heard the concerns and frustrations with distance learning but they have also heard the fears of students and educators about returning to classrooms and possibly contracting COVID-19. They are trying to balance safety with offering the best and most equitable education to all students, he said.
On Sunday, ODE offered a narrow exemption to the Winston-Dillard School District. The district was allowed to open in-person learning at its high school largely because of a misunderstanding about when the metrics for being open apply.
On Monday, ODE issued wildfire-related exemptions. Public and private schools within the boundaries of the McKenzie, Phoenix-Talent and Santiam Canyon school districts have permission to offer all students in-person instruction. ODE also gave schools within the boundaries of 25 school districts permission to offer in-person instruction to students who lost homes or are in Level 3 evacuation zones.
The Glide School District, which was among the fire-affected districts granted a limited waiver, is hoping for something closer to Winston-Dillard’s exemption.
Glide, east of Roseburg, was scheduled to open in-person learning for all students Sept. 8 when the French Creek fire shut schools down.
“We were 6 hours away from having kids in the school building,” said School Board Chair Daniel Metz.
The Archie Creek fire kept schools closed, displacing about 100 of the district’s roughly 700 students. The district scheduled Sept. 28 to begin school with in-person classes. But on Sept. 23 the school board was informed that Douglas County metrics meant grades 4-6 couldn’t be taught in person.
The younger grades can be in class because of the state’s looser metrics for K-3, and grades 7-12 can be in class because the middle and high schools fall into the looser metrics for small schools.
ODE set a bar of 10 cases per 100,000 population in a county for three weeks to begin in-person learning, but once it starts, cases can climb to 30 cases per 100,000 before a school has to go back to distance learning. Douglas County had 23.2 cases per 100,000 on Sept. 27, the most recent report.
“If we had been in class on Sept. 8, we would still be in school,” Metz said.
Metz echoes the argument of many district leaders that students need to be back in school not only for a better education but also for the mental, emotional, nutritional and health supports. The district is asking ODE for an exemption.
“We’re going to have to make some noise like Winston-Dillard,” Metz said.
The Adrian School District has already made some noise, suing for the right to offer in-person learning.
“I’m glad the rest of the state is starting to push back a bit,” said Adrian School Board Chair Ryan Martin. “It’s been a tough pill to swallow leaving this all in Salem’s hands. This should be a local decision.”
Adrian sits in Malheur County, which does not meet the county metrics. Adrian is remote, though, and hasn’t had COVID-19 cases in its area, Martin said.
The district is not trying to change the rules, he said.
“We would be more than content with an exemption to put the kids back in,” Martin said.
Local decisions can also keep a school closed even if the state says OK to in-person classes. McKenzie School District Superintendent Lane Tompkins said surveys and personal conversations showed him their community wanted to start this year with distance learning even though they could have had in-person classes.
The Holiday Farm fire closed the school district campus east of Eugene. It opened Sept. 28 with distance learning. McKenzie is one of the three wildfire-affected districts with permission to fully open, but Tompkins said it would stay in distance learning for now.
Roughly two-thirds of students are out of their homes still, Tompkins said, and the school campus suffered fire and smoke damage.
“Distance learning makes the most sense right now,” he said.
The district is considering some limited in-person options, including bringing students to campus when internet access is restored, Tompkins said.
Santiam Canyon also won’t bring students to campus right away despite its exemption. Superintendent Todd Miller said the district is still three to six weeks away from cleaning smoke damage in the classrooms.
Still, Miller was glad for the waiver, and the district is considering setting up mobile classrooms for limited in-person instruction.
“Even if we can just give a place to come for kids to do distance learning, that is a huge help,” he said.
The Phoenix-Talent School District is trying to determine if it can bring back students in early November with its exemption, said Superintendent Brent Barry. The district south of Medford faces significant logistical hurdles, including busing students from surrounding communities where they found shelter after losing their homes.
Barry said he hears regularly from families and students struggling with distance learning.
“This provides a little bit of hope to have some in-person learning and some extra support, not only for the academics but for the social emotional side,” he said.