MEDFORD, Ore. — On Friday, the CDC delivered news that many school districts have been eagerly awaiting — a recommendation that spacing between students in classrooms can be safely cut in half in many classroom settings. In practice, the change would allow most districts to ditch hybrid learning and return to full-time schedules on school campuses.
However, the CDC update does not spell any immediate change for local districts. The implementation, if it happens before the end of the school year, will come only after receiving the green light from state officials at the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education.
In a press conference on Friday, not long after the CDC change was announced, Governor Kate Brown briefly addressed the news — saying that ODE officials are now reviewing the guidance and will consider making changes to the state's existing playbook.
"Nothing changes for us until they make that commitment and decision," said Kirk Kolb, superintendent of the Grants Pass School District. "I would just echo [that we're] committed to bringing all students back every day, to the maximum extent possible."
Administrators at multiple districts across southern Oregon were already advocating for the reduced spacing requirement. The Klamath County School Board resolved to write Governor Brown two weeks ago, and the Grants Pass School Board followed suit last week. On Friday, Medford School District superintendent Dr. Bret Champion revealed that his district has done the same, along with a request for more "local control" in implementing the new guidance.
"Moving from six-feet to three-feet isn't the ultimate goal," Champion said. "The ultimate goal is to safely get all of our students back into our classrooms, so that's what we're hoping to be able to do."
Champion expressed the belief that ODE would change Oregon's guidance to align with the CDC's update in the near future, but admitted that he's been "a bit more wrong than right" in predicting the agency's decisions in the past.
Even once new guidance does come from state education officials, a transition back to full-time learning on campus might not be immediate. Champion said that MSD's facilities staff would be spending spring break bringing extra desks and other furniture back into school buildings — much of it having been removed in the run-up to the school year — although desks won't be placed back into classrooms until ODE delivers its guidance.
The transition to full-time classes with smaller spacing will be relatively easy in Medford's elementary schools, Champion said, and could be accomplished within a matter of days or a single week. But the process will be more difficult and time-consuming at the middle and high school level.
Transportation will also pose a logistical challenge. The Medford School District is down about one-third of its normal bus drivers on the payroll, Champion admitted, and the District is working to recruit more as quickly as possible.
Regardless, preparations for reduced spacing at this stage amount to a guessing game. If updated ODE guidance comes accompanied by metrics attached to county case counts — made "advisory" by Governor Brown at the beginning of 2021 — it's possible that schools in both Jackson and Josephine counties will struggle to reach full-time classroom learning based on current trends.
"This is an example of how we need our community to pull together to get those county numbers down," said Kolb. "Right now, the number of cases that we've had from individuals who may be a student or staff member from our schools are not getting the virus because they're coming to school, they're getting the virus because of activity outside of our schools — so again, this needs to be a community effort to get us where we need to be."