The Corvallis School District has a plan to bring students back that includes considerations around safety, health and equity, but when it may go into effect is still unknown.
Currently, limited in-person instruction is taking place in all of the district’s schools, but the majority of students are still learning online due to state metrics that bar them from classrooms because of the county’s high COVID-19 case count.
But on Jan. 1 those metrics became advisory rather than compulsory, and on Tuesday they changed altogether, making it easier for schools to bring students back.
The new metrics rely on a two-week case count average for counties. If a county has fewer than 50 new cases per 100,000 in population, schools can open to all students. Counties with more than 50 but fewer than 200 cases per 100,000 in population can open to younger students. Counties with 200 to 350 cases per 100,000 in population can welcome back elementary students one grade at a time. Any county with a case count of more than 350 per 100,000 during a two-week period must remain in comprehensive distance learning.
Benton County has seen cases hover around 300 per 100,000 the last few weeks, but if the county can bring its cases down into the zone that allows in-person instruction, Corvallis schools will open.
“We have a plan for primary grades to return in a phased model once we’ve been in the yellow for two weeks,” said Superintendent Ryan Noss, referring to the county’s case counts. “As one grade comes back, we’ll need to provide them with the training on how to navigate school safely.”
The plan is to bring back kindergarten students once the case count falls below 200 per 100,000 in population for two weeks. If all goes well, the next week would see another grade return to school. But the Corvallis plan doesn’t have a tentative start date. Instead, families are kept in the loop via district communication, and once the district has one week of case counts within range, they’re told there’s a possibility school could return.
“One reason we built in the phasing is to give people time to see that our numbers have gone down and we’re coming back,” Noss said. “It allows people to think through some of those questions (surrounding their personal choices).”
Those choices range from remaining on comprehensive distance learning to being vaccinated.
Linn and Benton County school districts must both work with their respective health departments to get teachers, who have been prioritized over seniors, vaccinated. However, the state doesn’t have enough vaccine doses for all of the people it’s opted to prioritize.
According to Noss, there’s been no data set compiled on how many teachers may choose not to be vaccinated. He said districts cannot mandate that teachers be vaccinated and cannot reveal which teachers have refused.
Teachers who do not feel comfortable returning to in-person instruction, Noss said, would need to have a conversation with human resources, but many of them have already been moved into positions that align with their health concerns.
Corvallis Online, the online learning option for students, will continue after reopening for students who cannot return to in-person learning. Teachers who feel like they cannot return have been moved onto that platform.
“It wasn’t the only criteria,” Noss said in explaining how teachers were chosen for the Corvallis Online platform.
Once schools do reopen, all children will be learning online for part of the day.
The current plan calls for students to remain on synchronous distance learning in the morning. In the afternoon, students who wish to return to in-person will be attending classes at school.
The instruction, Noss said, would be centered around peer-to-peer interaction — within COVID-19 distancing requirements — and issues that cannot be addressed online, such as mental and emotional health.
The plan, though, can still change, as it has for all districts statewide with continuously evolving guidance and rules handed down by the state.
“The thing that changes this,” Noss said, “is access to the vaccine for our staff. That might change the process in terms of return.”
The uncertainty surrounding when the vaccine will be available to teachers and when Benton County will enter the case count range that allows students to come back to the classroom has created a sense of limbo.
Additionally, the vaccine must be given in two doses to be effective, with up to four weeks between doses. And it takes another two weeks after the second dose before a person is considered fully vaccinated, with a roughly 95% chance of not contracting the virus.
Another issue complicating the reopening is the disconnect between state metrics and local autonomy. Districts that opt to open outside of the advisory metrics must have onsite COVID-19 testing at all of their schools.
Moreover, those schools could be leaving themselves open to liability — the state's largest education insurance entity has said it will not cover schools that open outside of the metrics.
“We’re paying close attention to the numbers,” Noss said of Benton County’s case count. “But it’s hard to know what’s going to happen first.”