WINSTON — Douglas High School received a special exception from the Oregon Department of Education to start in-person learning, despite not meeting the state guidance.
Scott Nine, ODE assistant superintendent of education innovation and improvement, said it was the first specific exemption that had been granted to a school district, but that “a very small group of districts most immediately impacted by wildfires” would also be provided exemptions.
Students within the Glide School District who were displaced by area wildfires will be able to attend in-person school under an emergency waiver, Glide Superintendent Mike Narkiewicz said Tuesday morning. The school district is reviewing the data to see how many students were displaced
“In general, ODE does not have an extraordinary waiver or exception to exceptions process,” Nine said. He later added, “ODE has worked district-by-district in the county to reach a shared understanding on how to apply the metrics framework and document their current operating status. In the case of Winston-Dillard, the Governor and ODE agreed that a very specific exception was the best way to proceed. The metrics framework remains critical and the state is trying to balance consistency and clear expectations while navigating nuanced details in local community settings.”
The exception for Douglas High School, which is in the Winston-Dillard School District, was granted following a Saturday afternoon meeting between Gov. Kate Brown, her senior staff, ODE Director Colt Gill, Douglas Public Health Officer Bob Dannenhoffer, Winston-Dillard School District Director of Instructional Services Rob Boye and school board vice chair Brian West. Winston-Dillard School District Superintendent Kevin Miller and board chair Lorna Quimby were on separate hunting trips and could not attend Saturday’s meeting.
“It was productive to problem-solve together and develop a better understanding of your plans and the current physical limitations of Douglas High School (DHS) in the Winston-Dillard School District (WDSD),” Gill wrote in a letter to the district. “It is the Governor’s priority to return to in-person instruction as soon as we can do so with safety and stability.”
Gill wrote that Dannenhoffer “expressed support for WDSD being one of the few places in Douglas County where he could currently support any new expansion of in-person instruction” during the meeting.
The high school will operate on a hybrid schedule, based on the last name of the student. Monday was the first day of school for students with last names starting with A through L, and students with last names starting with M through Z started Tuesday.
Principal Craig Anderson said Tuesday morning, “It was electric yesterday and I think today’s going to be the same.”
On both first days of school, parents and community members held up signs to greet the students and thank the teachers for going back to school.
“We’re supporting the teachers that are willing to come and teach our kids, and supporting the kids who are coming back to school,” Crystal Mickel said. She later added, “My sophomore has not been excited about school since kindergarten. And knowing that he got to go back this week, he was just like ‘I just want to be back in school.’ He just wants to go back to school and see his friends and his teachers.”
Student Tristen Ronk said, “It feels very different. I think there’s going to be a much more hands on approach, but there’s going to be a lot more rules set in place. So it’s going to be unpredictable what’s going to happen.”
He added that he was happy to see his classmates and get a bit more structure in his day.
His mother, Mande Ronk, is involved with the booster club and helped organize the welcome back to school event.
Anderson said it made him feel good to see the support of the community and was impressed that there were as many people on Tuesday as there were on Monday.
On Monday there were 136 students in school and Anderson expected a similar number of students Tuesday. Students also have the option to continue with full-time distance learning.
During Saturday’s meeting between state and local officials, it was clarified that there would be no more than 250 students on campus at any time, the school is considered rural and more than 8 miles from the nearest school serving the same grades, the county case rate is below 30 per 100,000 and Dannenhoffer said there are no COVID-19 cases in the zip codes served by the school district, according to a letter from Gill.
West said the construction at the high school made it impossible for more than 250 students to attend school. Anderson said the Adroid construction crews continued to work hard to ensure student safety and that it did not impact the first day of classes.
Staff members at Douglas High School called in sick for the freshman orientation that had been scheduled for last Thursday and the orientation was canceled as a result. Staff members had talked about calling in sick Monday as well to make the community and administration aware of their concerns for their health and safety.
Anderson said there were a few people who were sick, including one with an underlying condition and he didn’t think these were people who were sick as a protest.
“There was a lot of hearsay, but when it came down to it they all showed up,” Anderson said. “I think it shows their true professionalism. We have a good staff.”
Mickel said she was surprised, but happy to hear that the staff showed up to teach.
The school board met in executive session Monday, which was closed to the public, to discuss current litigation or litigation likely to be filed. West said one of the items that was to be discussed was the ODE guidance, but that had been resolved. He said there was another matter on their agenda, but did not feel comfortable revealing any additional information.
West said the school board had not been officially informed of any concerns by the teacher’s union.
Douglas High School staff sent a letter to Miller last week in which they wrote, “While the entire staff at DHS appreciates the work and care the district administration has put into the reopening process, the vast majority of the staff do not feel comfortable returning to in-person at this time.”
The staff included a review of the health metrics by the state’s teacher union, Oregon Education Association, which outlined that the school does not meet the guidelines to reopen.
Gill acknowledged in his letter that the school district had been misinformed about the state guidelines for reopening to in-person learning.
The Winston-Dillard school board approved a plan for a staggered reopening for in-person learning on Sept. 9, when the county met the metrics for reopening. The board was informed by Douglas Public Health Network that they could set reopening dates for the future, regardless of how the metrics might change in the future, which was not accurate according to Gill.
ODE became aware of the misunderstanding on Sept. 17 and had a meeting with superintendents throughout the county, including Miller, on Sept. 23.
The school district had also misunderstood how the metrics would impact schools. According to Gill, the district thought “the metrics applied to the district and not the school. That was not accurate.” This information was also cleared up on Sept. 23.
Nine said it’s a collective responsibility between ODE, Douglas Public Health Network, the governor’s office, school board and school leaders to make sure they understand the metrics.
“Given the unique circumstances outlined above, including an acknowledgment that if the board and superintendent had the right understanding of the metrics framework on September 9th they would be operating fully in person, ODE is documenting a specific exception that allows DHS to open to in-person instruction in the Hybrid Instructional Model.”