Middle and high school students in Roseburg Public Schools will not be returning to school Monday, the district announced Tuesday evening after new state guidelines were announced.
The state guidelines reflected an earlier message from Gov. Kate Brown to make the health metrics advisory instead of mandatory and made those guidelines less strict thus making it easier for schools to reopen.
The new guidelines advise schools in areas with more than 350 cases per 100,000 people in a two-week period to remain closed.
Douglas County had 211.1 cases per 100,000 people in the last two-week period, according to data from the Oregon Health Authority.
“Unfortunately, local case rates have risen too high to reopen to secondary students as planned on January 25,” a press release from the district read. “Case rates must be below 200 per 100,000 people in order to begin the return of secondary students to in-person/hybrid learning. Our plan moving forward will be to begin in-person hybrid learning for grades 6-12 as soon as we meet the metrics threshold for secondary students.”
Preschool through fifth graders will start on-site learning on Jan. 25. The school district will bring students back the Monday after the county has less than 200 cases per 100,000 people, according to the press release.
These guidelines are advisory, not mandatory, according to the Oregon Department of Education. It is up to local school districts whether they want to reopen or not. All other school districts in Douglas County are open to on-site learning.
Roseburg Public Schools Superintendent Jared Cordon explained Wednesday that the district will continue to follow the metrics, whether advisory or mandatory, in the interest of student safety, staff safety and community safety. Cordon said the district hopes to be a responsible community organization and will follow the guidelines set by doctors and epidemiologists at the state and national level.
In an email to parents, Roseburg Public Schools said, “We must protect the district from liability in order to ensure taxpayer dollars remain allocated to serving students and employing staff.”
Legislation was passed in 2020 that would protect school districts from lawsuits made because of COVID-19. However, the insurance provider PACE said districts must follow all the guidelines — including advisory guidance.
Schools that offer in-person instruction must offer access to on-site COVID-19 testing for symptomatic students and staff, as well as those with known exposure to the virus, according to the new state guidelines.
Douglas County Public Health Officer Bob Dannenhoffer said it would be OK for Roseburg schools to open during his Facebook Live Q&A Tuesday evening, about an hour before the school district made its announcement.
It is unclear if Douglas Public Health Network was part of Tuesday’s decision-making process by Roseburg Public Schools.
Under the advisory metrics from the state education and health departments, a school district in an area with 200 to 350 cases per 100,000 people in a two-week period would fall in the “Elementary On-Site and Hybrid Transition” model, which advises districts to carefully bring elementary students back to campus. Once an area has below 200 cases per 100,000 people over a two-week period, middle and high school students can also safely return to school, according to the advisory metrics.
“Since the beginning of the school year, Roseburg Public Schools has strictly adhered to the state’s mandates and guidance to best protect student and staff health, adjusting our plans as needed,” said Superintendent Jared Cordon in a press release. “We believe that following the path we have set throughout the year to manage these adjustments has been the safest and most responsible option for our district.”
The school board made the decision to reopen at a Jan. 6 school board meeting, but last week board chair Rebecca Larson said the reopening was “kind of pending.”
During the Jan. 6 board meeting, several parents and community members spoke out in favor of reopening the schools. At that time there were 142.5 cases per 100,000 people in Douglas County and a similar Transition instruction model according to the guidelines at that time.
The number of cases has continued to rise in Douglas County since then.
A total of 34 middle school teachers, from both Jo Lane and Fremont middle schools, signed their names to letters to the school board that addressed concerns about returning to school too soon.
“We are not asking for a perfect solution, but a humane one, that recognizes that every human life has the dignity to be preserved, regardless of the inconvenience or perceived short term benefit,” teachers at Jo Lane Middle School wrote.
Both letters asked for vaccinations before reopening the schools, a message echoed by most teachers according to Roseburg Education Association President Camron Pope.
Pope conducted a survey about returning to the classroom on behalf of the teacher’s union and although the comfort levels varied widely, there was an overwhelming plea for vaccines.
“If you’re looking for a trend in the results it’s ‘Get us a vaccine before returning the kids, we would feel much more comfortable,’” Pope said. “Even people who felt extremely comfortable, that was still a comment they made.”
Pope said he hopes teachers in front of children will be prioritized in the vaccination plan, but that those decisions will be made by the Douglas Education Service District.
Pope, who teaches fifth grade at Eastwood Elementary School, said he tries not to get too excited about the reopening, because of the constant changes being made by the district.
“We’ve done this enough times that I’m not guaranteeing anything,” he said. “We now have a better opportunity but until I have students in my room and I am teaching in a classroom, nothing is off the table.”
Dannenhoffer said Tuesday that the hope is to start vaccinating teachers by Jan. 25, but that it will depend on the number of vaccines the county receives.
The school district will continue to offer limited in-person instruction to students in grades 6-12, which it said has “been effective in providing much-needed additional support for students, and we will continue to encourage secondary students to participate.”