South Umpqua School District will return to on-site, in-person instruction when school starts on Jan. 4, the district announced Tuesday, and it’s likely other schools will follow as state guidelines are being revised.

On Wednesday, Gov. Kate Brown announced that she would like to see more school districts on track to return students to in-person learning and the school metrics will be advisory, rather than mandatory, starting Jan. 1.

Roseburg Public Schools Superintendent Jared Cordon said, “As you can imagine, this is a dramatic shift in the state’s previous practice. We are working to get several questions answered that were not addressed in the governor’s announcement.”

The metrics released Monday showed that there had been 190.6 cases per 100,000 people in Douglas County in the two-week period ending on Dec. 19. School metrics are released each Monday and based on two-week data collected each Saturday.

“The school metrics for the past two weeks have Douglas County under 200 cases per 100,000 for the first time since early November, and the state has extended ‘Safe Harbor’ for any schools who already were open for in-person instruction earlier this year,” a statement from the South Umpqua School District read. “We have confirmed with the Oregon Department of Education and local public health authorities that we may resume our in-person instruction, Pre-K to grade 12, on Jan. 4, as planned.”

South Umpqua Schools were open to in-person instruction early in the fall but decided to transition to comprehensive distance learning on Nov. 30.

“Moving to CDL, especially to implement a quarantine response to a case or outbreak or higher local community spread, doesn’t forfeit the Safe Harbor exception,” said Scott Nine, the Oregon Department of Education assistant superintendent of education innovation and improvement. “So, with the recent extension of the Safe Harbor provision, a school could move back into their prior exception.”

On Nov. 23, South Umpqua School District Superintendent Kate McLaughlin said outbreaks in South County were expected to impact schools for the next few weeks.

“After consultation with Douglas Public Health Network, it is clear that we no longer even come close to meeting the metrics to continue offering in-person instruction at this time,” McLaughlin said. “Douglas County is expected to be at approximately 290 positive COVID-19 cases per 100,000 with today’s metrics — well over the ‘red zone’ threshold.”

The ‘red zone’ threshold McLaughlin referred to is for the distance learning educational model listed in the metrics, when there are more than 200 cases per 100,000 people in the county.

In that Nov. 23 statement, McLaughlin also made it clear that the plan was to return to in-person education on Jan. 4 as metrics allow.

All school districts in Douglas County had returned to on-site learning during the fall, which means most schools could reopen under the state guidelines.

“We will begin the new year with comprehensive distance learning K-12 with the intention of returning to in-person instruction later in the month of January if prudent,” Sutherlin School District Superintendent Terry Prestianni said. He added that the administrative team would meet during the first week of January to evaluate and talk about return dates, with the help of the local health authority.

Changes are also expected in the Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance, with a review for updates scheduled for Jan. 19. Brown directed state education and health leaders to work to get more school districts on track to reopen to on-site learning, especially to elementary students.

“As 2021 approaches and we look to the remaining school year just over the horizon, it is clear that the greatest gift we can give to Oregon’s children this holiday season is to redouble our efforts to act responsibly and reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. Our students’ learning, resilience, and future well-being depend on all of us,” Brown said.

Sanne Godfrey can be reached at sgodfrey@nrtoday.com or 541-957-4203. Follow her on Twitter @sannegodfrey.

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