Winston Middle School’s new counselor resigned because she didn’t feel safe returning to work — and she’s not alone.
Several staff members, parents and community members filed complaints with the Oregon Department of Education because they believe the Winston-Dillard School District is not following the state guidelines for opening to in-person learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think it was inappropriate to have us go back in school and my health and safety are more important than my job, so I resigned,” the school counselor said. She added that she was aware that it was a privilege for her to do so and knew other staff members were frustrated, but didn’t have the financial opportunity to make the choice and may have had stronger ties to the community.
The counselor agreed to speak to The News-Review on condition of anonymity, for fear that any public statements may impact opportunities for future employment at another school district.
The middle school opened its doors to on-site instruction on Monday. Douglas High School was set to have a freshman orientation on Thursday, but according to building union representative Kimberly Mincher, orientation was canceled after at least 10 staff members called in sick.
Mincher also said that it’s likely that staff members plan to be sick Monday, when the school is set to start in-person education.
“We all want to return to in-person learning,” Mincher said, but added that they want to do this safely and want the health metrics to be enforced for their safety, their family’s safety and the safety of the students.
Winston-Dillard Superintendent Kevin Miller did not respond to two phone calls and an email from The News-Review asking for clarification on why the school was reopening.
He did write a lengthy post on Facebook on Saturday afternoon, which stated in part, “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.”
During a Sept. 9 meeting, the Winston-Dillard school board voted to bring fourth through sixth grade back on Sept. 21, seventh and eighth grade on Sept. 28 and the high school on Oct. 5.
However, Lookingglass Elementary School was open to in-person education for grades K-6 on Sept. 14.
Peter Rudy, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Education, said the reopening metrics are to be assessed on a school basis, not a district basis. Even though other schools in the district were open, the middle and high school should remain closed until the metrics are met.
When Winston Middle School reopened on Monday, Douglas County had 22.3 cases per 100,000 people for the last seven days. In order to start on-site education that number would have to be at or below 10 per 100,000 for three consecutive seven-day periods.
During Tuesday’s Facebook Live Q&A with Douglas County Health Officer Dr. Bob Dannenhoffer, he said he will give advice to school boards but the ultimate decision is up to the school board.
“We’re like the weathermen,” he said. “We go ahead and figure out how much rain came down, we deal with the high and low temperatures, tell you about the storm that’s coming. We predict the weather for tomorrow, but it’s really up to the people involved whether they still want to have their wedding outdoors.
“The weatherman doesn’t say ‘oh, you can’t have your wedding outdoors because it may rain,’ it’s still your decision. And similarly with this, public health collects data, we interpret the data, if people have questions we think about the data, but the decision gets made by the school board. The decision to open or not open is a school board’s decision.”
Dannenhoffer also reiterated that while the case rate is up in Douglas County, it is still relatively low in comparison with state averages and counties of comparable size.
Miller wrote on Facebook, “I certainly do not want to see anyone get sick but we are already most certainly losing our most vulnerable and underserved children. I find this extremely frustrating and hope we can do better by our students, staff and families in the very near future.”
While the original Ready Schools, Safe Learners shows several goals each school has to meet in order to reopen, the one that matters in September is the cases per 100,000. The Oregon Department of Education eliminated test positivity as a factor for reopening metrics for the month of September due to the impact of wildfires on testing.
“At this time the test positivity metric will return in October,” Rudy said. “However, the metrics will be periodically reviewed by the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education through a review of data from Oregon schools, other states, research and guidance from the federal level. These reviews may provide future updates to the metrics.”
Douglas County has not met the reopening metrics for all grades for the past week. There are some exceptions to grades and courses that can start or continue classes despite rising COVID-19 cases.
Oregon Department of Education stated the only open complaint in Douglas County was with the South Umpqua School District. A call to provide technical assistance is scheduled for later this week to bring the district into compliance.
When asked why there were no records of the formal complaints filed against Winston-Dillard School District at the state offices, Rudy said he would check with legal affairs.
The News-Review received confirmation notices of complaints that were filed with the Oregon Department of Education against Winston-Dillard School District from people who filed them.
The News-Review has requested public records of all formal complaints filed against school districts in Oregon for the 2020-2021 school year, but has not yet received the information.
Other school districts throughout the county have had to halt going back to in-person education as the case numbers began to rise. Douglas County has not met the state metrics for the past two weeks, which means any school that opened after Sept. 20 would violate the state guidelines.
North Douglas Superintendent Terry Bennett wrote, “The guidance from the Oregon Department of Education is difficult to understand and with constantly changing infection numbers in the county, it is no wonder there is confusion, but here’s what we know today: For our students in grades 4th-12th to begin in-person learning and end Comprehensive Distance Learning, Douglas County’s cases per 100,000 need to be 10 or below for three consecutive weeks.”
North Douglas, Yoncalla, Elkton, Oakland, Glide and Riddle all had to postpone their in-person starts to the school year.
In Glide, the news was not well received as the school district had decided to start in-person learning, but had to delay due to the fires.
“We appealed and protested the ruling because we did meet the metrics before the wildfire hit us and we would have been able to open K-12 if not for the emergency closure,” a statement by the district read. “We are being penalized because we had a wildfire??? This is ridiculous and makes no sense.
“In their ruling regarding the metrics, we must have physically opened the doors and had kids in school to use the metrics at the time that would have allowed us to open K-12.”
Glide will be open for in-person instruction for kindergarten through third grade and seventh through 12th grade. Students in fourth, fifth and sixth grade will participate in distance learning.
Guidance released by the state education department on Sept. 24 does provide the local health authority with more control over when to close schools that have already reopened.
School districts that do not follow state guidance will first receive technical assistance from the Department of Education, however the Occupational Safety and Health Administration can enforce the state guidance. Schools may also be fined for not following the guidance.