Mixed messages and ambiguous language in state guidelines to reopen schools have been frustrating for students, parents, staff and administrators.
In Douglas County, this came to a head on Sept. 17 when it was discovered that there was a discrepancy in the way Douglas County schools understood the guidelines and the way state officials did.
Sutherlin School District Superintendent Terry Prestianni said, “The guidance itself was pretty ambiguous and that created an issue fairly quickly. I’ll go out on a limb and say that there were a lot of hands, a lot of cooks in the kitchen when that guidance was designed and therefore a lot of people had an interest in it.
“It became fairly ambiguous when it was released. And then the big issues came, I believe, when school districts were making local decisions that were best suited to their district and their situation, on when and how to open. And I think every school, every district in the county has a slightly different population, and slightly different configuration as to how their schools are set up. And so everybody had slightly different reopening plans and reopening dates. And that coupled with the delays or changes because of the fires, that just made the ambiguous guidance more difficult to interpret.”
Douglas County met the state metrics to reopen to in-person learning for all grades on Sept. 9; The state test positivity percentage had dropped below 5% for three consecutive weeks and the county case number was below 10 per 100,000 during that same time span. The county also needed to have a test positivity percentage at or below 5%, but it hasn’t exceeded that number since at least July 12 — when the Oregon Health Authority started reporting that number.
Schools got the news that they could open the doors to all of their students and started planning. Because of exceptions for certain students, including kindergarten through third grade, many schools were already open to some in-person learning.
However, due to a large increase in COVID-19 cases in the county, and the state, by Sept. 21 schools in Douglas County no longer met the state metrics to start in-person learning.
Many Douglas County superintendents expressed anger and frustration because many had hoped to open their schools that Monday and state officials now told them they couldn’t.
It was a common misperception among Douglas County school leaders that once they started planning to reopen schools, they’d be considered open and schools wouldn’t be asked to shut their doors until there were more than 30 cases per 100,000.
ODE was made aware of the confusion on Sept. 17 and superintendents had a meeting on Sept. 23 to make their case for reopening. Ultimately, ODE stood their ground and several schools remained closed.
Following the Sept. 23 meeting, Oregon Department of Education Assistant Superintendent of Education Innovation and Improvement Scott Nine said, “The department recognizes this can be frustrating and challenging, both for schools trying to plan and for families. But the reason, the rationale for those metrics, is that it gives us insight about what type of, particularly where there’s unexplained community spread. Where you want to slow down and pause.”
The News-Review requested information on Sept. 24 to see what information was sent between the governor’s office and the Douglas County COVID-19 Response Team and Douglas Public Health Network regarding school reopenings, but has not yet received the information. According to the governor’s website, the records request is under review.
School administrators weren’t shy about letting their feelings be known about the situation.
Riddle School District Superintendent Dave Giannoti said, “I tried to fight this and got nowhere. So, I regret we are still only open in-person K-3 and scheduled 4-6 cohorts. All others are distance learning. My sincere apologies and regret for this. I share your frustration and disappointment.”
Elkton Charter School Superintendent Andy Boe wrote, “All of this has become very complex and nuanced. My hope is that common sense will prevail and we will get the chance to truly make a local decision on opening schools. I encourage all of you to reach out to your elected officials to advocate for your position.”
In Glide, the frustration grew because it was no longer able to open to all grades as the school was forced to close its doors when the city was evacuated due to the wildfires.
“We are being penalized because we had a wildfire??? This is ridiculous and makes no sense,” Glide School District Superintendent Mike Narkiewicz wrote on Facebook.
Others continued forward with their plans.
Winston-Dillard School District Superintendent Kevin Miller wrote a lengthy Facebook post criticizing the state’s decisions.
“ODE seems to believe that if everyone stays home, everyone is safe. Sadly, this is a misperception probably related to their unfamiliarity with the poverty communities of Douglas County. Also, sadly, ODE staff probably couldn’t even find Douglas county without a GPS so I doubt there will be much improvement in their understanding of this area in the near future. In our community we have a number of students that do not have nice clean, warm, quiet “homes” (if they have homes at all) that they can “stay home in” to study and access their education or other needed services. These students are the most vulnerable and underserved students that come from fractured families. These fractured families are often at least partially caused by abuse issues (substance and other forms) often related to living in poverty. These students do not necessarily have a voice nor much of a choice about where they stay during the day when not in school. Our schools truly are the best places they can be. Not only do we provide a warm, safe, caring place with food service. We also provide or help provide needed services such as mental and physical health services. Without our schools these students go without as they have been doing for the past 6 months. ODE likes to discuss the topic of Equity, perhaps someone from ODE could explain how these students are being treated equitably under the current reopening model. On our Southern border we have South Umpqua (similar in size to W-D) providing services K-12, we have and a number of smaller districts and two private schools in the county providing services K-12 as well. Anybody but me noticing some inequities here?”
Ultimately, Douglas High School, which is in the Winston-Dillard School District, was given a special exemption to reopen to in-person learning, despite not meeting the metrics. Dannenhoffer told ODE there were no COVID-19 cases in the area and the school wouldn’t have more than 250 students on campus on any given day.
The News-Review was informed on Sept. 24 that Sutherlin School District would also have to delay its opening, but the school district itself had been told it could reopen.
“We had had a conversation as superintendents the night before,” Prestianni explained Wednesday morning. “In my explanation at that point as to how we had reopened, I was given the OK. But then, they’re going back and looking through the the guidance and going, ‘No, they don’t qualify,’ and that’s what came to you. The next day, we had the opportunity to, in person, explain and show exactly how it worked and we were given the OK to continue moving forward. So that’s how that happened.”
Last week, the Sutherlin School District was open for hybrid learning in grades 6-12 and continued staggering a return to full-time in-person learning by grade level.
“We actually added fourth and fifth grade this week,” Prestianni said. “That has gone really well, in terms of what’s happening in the buildings. There are some transportation issues. We knew this was going to occur, but we have a lot of students who are being transported to school and from school by parents. And so we have some traffic logistics that are that we need to work on and we’re trying to find some creative solutions for that. But other than that, it’s been been going pretty well.”
Prestianni said adding one or two grade levels at a time has been helpful as they have often already worked through some of the issues before.
“I’m just happy that we’re getting kids back in the classroom as much as possible and, and getting to see kids socialize, and enjoy school again,” he said. “That’s huge. That’s why we’re here.”
Schools should be planning a transition back to distance learning now, and once there are more than 30 cases per 100,000 for more than one week in a row the schools will need to shut their doors and initiate distance learning.
The number of cases has continued to increase in the county, and the state. OHA will report its numbers for the week on Tuesday, but according to Douglas Public Health Network numbers, there have been 30 new cases in Douglas County between Oct. 2 and Oct. 9.
Douglas County has approximately 115,000 residents, so 30 new cases would be just below the threshold to close schools.
Douglas Public Health Network, has overseen the operational blueprints for the schools but referred all questions regarding metrics to ODE and OHA.
Superintendents throughout Douglas County meet once a week with Douglas County Public Health Officer Bob Dannenhoffer, but there’s also a designated email address for school officials to use and ask questions, and ODE has office hours every Thursday where administrators can call in and ask questions.
“I would say that the Department of Education has tried really hard, since we’ve reopened, to meet and meet individually with school districts or meet in groups,” Prestianni said. “They even had meetings with us as an entire county to try and get some of that sorted out. So I think there has been a concerted effort to do that.”
By Wednesday afternoon, OHA reported there were two students at East Primary School in Sutherlin who had tested positive for COVID-19. Prestianni and Douglas Public Health Network each reported only one student had tested positive.
Nine said having the right information is “a collective responsibility held between ODE, the Local Public Health Authority, Governor’s office, school board and school leaders.”