Several school districts in Douglas County were told by state officials that they cannot start on-site instruction for all grades due to a recent increase in COVID-19 cases in Douglas County.
Riddle School District planned to fully reopen Monday, but on Sunday afternoon a message was sent out to the community that it had to delay. Superintendent Dave Gianotti said he was frustrated by this decision.
“I tried to fight this and got nowhere,” Gianotti said. Riddle remains open for in-person learning for kindergarten through third grade and for smaller cohorts of special education students.
Oregon Department of Education Assistant Superintendent Scott Nine said the state was made aware on Sept. 17 that there was a discrepancy between the school districts’ understanding of the health metrics and the state’s interpretation of that guidance.
School districts in Douglas County were given the green light to reopen by the Douglas Public Health Network on Sept. 9, when the county was meeting those metrics. Currently the county is not meeting the metrics to start in-person education for all grade levels.
“It’s not about this, for lack of a better term, permanent green light. Instead it’s this window until the metrics change,” 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.”
During a meeting Wednesday, officials from the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education determined that because there were more than 10 cases per 100,000 people in Douglas County, schools would be unable to fully reopen for in-person learning.
“I am truly upset at this decision,” Gianotti said in a message to parents.
Douglas County Public Health Official Dr. Bob Dannenhoffer referred to the state for comments on school reopening metrics. Nine said Dannenhoffer was in the meeting yesterday and made the comment that “None of us lived through a pandemic before” when the misunderstanding was brought up.
Several other schools also planned to start in-person education Monday, including North Douglas and Glide school districts. Elkton School Districts will have to push back intended reopening dates for the school.
"Grades 4-12 will remain in Comprehensive Distance Learning until we get confirmation from Douglas County Health and the Oregon Department of Education that we can open," Elkton Superintendent Andy Boe wrote on the school's Facebook page Thursday. "This change comes as a result of incorrect information given to us by both ODE and Douglas County Health as we formulated our re-opening plan. I regret the late notice of this announcement and the hardship it brings upon families."
Nine said he was unsure of plans for reopening in the Winston-Dillard School District. Winston-Dillard Superintendent Kevin Miller did not immediately return a phone call from The News-Review.
School districts that started in-person education during the window when the county was meeting state health metrics can remain open. Once there are more than 20 cases per 100,000, schools will need to start planning a return to distance learning. If there are more than 30 cases per 100,000 in Douglas County, all school districts will have to participate in comprehensive distance learning for all grades.
“There is this intentional kind of buffering,” Nine said. “These windows are to basically be aware and communicate to families in case you need to transition out of fully in-person.”
Exceptions for in-person learning apply to kindergarten through third grade, special education, career technical education, English language learners and a select group of other students who require in-person education. Students who fall under those exceptions can go to school if there are no more than 30 cases per 100,000 people in the county.
The Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority worked throughout the summer to create statewide guidance on reopening schools, called Ready Schools, Safe Learners.
The guidance started with going over safety protocols inside schools that have to be met, such as social distancing standards, face coverings and cleaning protocols.
In late July, state officials announced that in order to reopen safely all schools also had to follow certain health metrics. School districts must abide by both the Ready Schools, Safe Learners and health metrics guidelines in order to reopen.
The health metrics, although there are some exceptions, consist of meeting three main criteria for a seven day period for three consecutive weeks:
- The state test positivity rate has to be at, or below, 5%.
- The county test positivity rate has to be at, or below, 5%.
- There can be no more than 10 cases per 100,000 people in the county.
According to numbers released by the Oregon Health Authority, the statewide test positivity percentage has been above 5% for the past two weeks. The county’s test positivity number was at 5%, but the number of cases was 18.7 per 100,000.
School districts were informed Thursday morning that the test positivity rating will not be included in the state health metrics for the remainder of September, due to a shortage in testing and impact from the wildfires.
On Sept. 17, the Adrian School District filed a lawsuit against Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill and Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen to express its frustration in how their school district is required to educate amid the global pandemic.
The lawsuit states, “If the children are not immediately returned to in-person instruction, immediate and irreparable harm will be caused to the school district’s resources,” and “if the children are not immediately returned to in-person instruction, immediate and irreparable harm will be incurred by the students in the form of reduced quality of instruction.”
Adrian is a small town with a population less than 1,000 and a school district with 295 students located in Malheur County. Malheur County is the second largest county in Oregon, by size, and has had a test positivity percentage of more than 25% for the past nine weeks. The COVID-19 cases in that county have exceeded 300 per 100,000 for the past eight weeks.
The lawsuit calls the state-wide plan impractical, arbitrary and capricious, and asks that authority to open schools be turned over to local school boards.
The lawsuit was received by Gill and Allen on Wednesday and they will have 30 days to respond.