WINSTON — About a dozen staff members at Douglas High School called in sick for a freshman orientation that was scheduled for Thursday, and it’s possible at least that many staffers will call in sick Monday when the school is set to reopen.
“It’s our version of the Blue flu,” building union representative Kimberly Mincher said, referring to an organized protest strategy police unions sometimes employ where a large number of officers call in sick to further their agenda.
In this case, the staff at Douglas High School is asking the school board to delay the start of in-person education until Douglas County meets the state standards for reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic.
There are not enough substitute teachers in Douglas County that are able to take over all in-person courses at the high school, which means until staff and administration come to an agreement, there will be no school.
Winston-Dillard school board chair Lorna Quimby said the district had made the decision to reopen the high school during its Sept. 9 board meeting. The choice to open the high school nearly a month after that meeting was to accommodate the staff so they can have adequate time to transition from online to in-person learning, according to Quimby.
The freshman orientation was postponed for Thursday and all classes were canceled — including comprehensive distance learning courses.
Quimby said the high school will be open Monday.
Staff members sent a letter to Superintendent Kevin Miller earlier in the week to voice their concerns.
“The staff of DHS is asking for an extension on our reopening date due to safety concerns in regards to the increasing cases of the COVID-19 virus within our county,” the letter read. “Numerous staff members have come forward with concerns regarding personal health, familial health, cohort sizes, building spacing, and unmet state and county metrics.
“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 instruction at this time.”
Miller did not respond to phone calls and an email from The News-Review. Douglas High School Principal Craig Anderson did not respond to an email from The News-Review.
In a Facebook post Saturday, Miller said schools are a safe haven for many students who struggle with poverty, abuse and food insecurity at home. He did not specifically address the high school.
Quimby said, “Kids need to be in the classroom because sometimes they miss out. We have kids that don’t get support from parents. We need to meet every child’s need.”
Continuing with online learning only is an option for parents or children who do not feel safe returning to school.
Quimby said the district is working on getting additional help and has created a hybrid education plan for the high school that will allow for smaller class sizes and thus less exposure for staff and students. The district is also setting up technical support for those who choose to continue learning from home.
To start in-person education there can be no more than 10 cases per 100,000 people in a county for three consecutive seven-day periods. Douglas County had 22.3 cases last week per 100,000 and 16.9 per 100,000 the week before, according to information released by the Oregon Health Authority.
Since Saturday, there have been 17 new cases total in Douglas County.
The Oregon Education Association also submitted a review of the reopening metrics in which it stated that because the high school was not open before Sept. 21 and the school has an enrollment of more than 250 students is does not meet the metrics. “For these reasons, the high school should continue with Comprehensive Distance Learning until the county case rates once again lower to 10 or fewer per 100,000.”
Douglas Public Health Officer Bob Dannenhoffer said during a Facebook Live Q&A on Tuesday that although the case rates in Douglas County are rising, they are still below the state average and lower than counties of comparable size.
The statewide case rate last week was 48.1 per 100,000. Crook, Harney, Sherman and Wheeler counties are the only counties in Oregon to have three consecutive weeks of 10 or less cases per 100,000, according to OHA.
Staffers at Douglas High School can call in sick for three days, before the district can ask to see a doctor’s note. If staff can not provide a doctor’s note they risk losing their job. Several staffers were prepared to go past the three days.
“We know the risks we’re taking by fighting this,” Mincher said. “We just feel like: if they’re going to put out a metric based on science, that we should be following that.”
However, there was some hope that the issue would be resolved by Monday.
The current action at Douglas High School is a continued sign of tension between educators within the Winston-Dillard School District and the administration and school board.
A counselor at Winston Middle School announced she resigned because she didn’t believe the school was meeting the metrics and would endanger her health.
OEA said because the middle school is considered rural, remote and small it can reopen as long as it adheres to all other guidance set out by the Ready Schools, Safe Learners.
When The News-Review first reported the tension, several people took to Facebook to leave comments.
John Poore wrote, “The schools need to open. I completely support the Winston Dillard school board and Superintendent Miller in this decision. I have kids at Douglas High School and what is happening to them and others is damaging and far worse than the possibility of the virus. There are most certainly some at risk members of the population who should isolate. The majority, however, need to be back at school. If a staff member is in an at risk category they should stay home. Those who are not do not have my support in walking off the job.”
Kim Dunstan wrote, “We support the schools OPENING! Our children need to get back to school!”
Several staff and community members have filed complaints with the Oregon Department of Education and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regarding the districts plan to reopen and individuals who refused to wear masks and socially distance.
Peter Rudy, a spokesperson for ODE, said two complaints had been filed against Winston-Dillard and ODE is reaching out to offer technical assistance.
Rudy said, “We have not yet made a determination as to whether the district is in compliance.”
Oregon OSHA spokesperson Aaron Corvin said there was one complaint against the Winston-Dillard School District in the last month, which was filed on Sept. 2 and alleged that staff members at Brockway Elementary School were not wearing appropriate face coverings.
Corvin also noted that most complaints against schools will be referred to ODE.
Rudy said ODE will work with the schools and school districts to get them into compliance, which means letting them know about the complaint and getting their input.
“We go through the guidance with them to look at their specific scenario to determine if it is in compliance or not,” Rudy said. “If they are in compliance, then the case is closed. If they are not, we make recommendations to get them into compliance. If they accept the recommendations, then the case is closed. If not, the case is referred to OSHA.”
Currently, Winston-Dillard School District has in-person, on-site education for preschool through eighth grade, while the high school is using comprehensive distance learning. During a Sept. 9 meeting, the school board decided the high school would return to a hybrid learning model on Oct. 5. The school board’s next meeting will be Oct. 14.