Philomath School District building
Philomath School District (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The only certainty seen so far in this academic year for students, parents and educators has been that nothing is certain when it comes to trying to plan a return to classrooms.

The Philomath School District had been planning to start bringing students back on Jan. 19 for hybrid learning with a phasing-in process that would begin with the youngest students.

However, various factors revolving around the latest information has again delayed the process. During a special school board meeting Monday night, Superintendent of Schools Susan Halliday suggested that students remain in distance learning until at least Jan. 26.

“I hate that, it just bumps it off one more week, and then we would plan accordingly about a phase-in process,” Halliday said. “However, in good conscious, I can’t ignore the case rate that continues to rise in the county and a local public health authority that now says, ‘please don’t go.’”

Halliday asked for input from school board members and the Jan. 26 date remained intact with their support.

Factoring into the decision were significantly higher COVID-19 case rates as reported through the Benton County Health Department. Also, the school district loses liability protections if it opens its doors outside of the state’s metrics.

Said Halliday in response to a school board member’s question on that topic, “I don’t think that you want me to get the school district sued and have no coverage … that’s not something we want to do.”

Halliday said limited in-person instruction will remain intact and individual schools will be in touch with updates specific to each environment.

Halliday and the administrative team are now waiting for a state-level meeting to occur on the afternoon of Jan. 19 when return-to-school metrics may be adjusted and various other requirements will be considered.

“The advantage — if you can call it that — is that we haven’t had to make the tough decisions on this because it’s been made for us with some of the metrics,” school board member Jim Kildea said. “Now, if we’re really operating under our best knowledge and best assessment of where the community is and what the risk is … I like the approach.”

Halliday wants to get kids back in school, saying that educators are losing ground when it comes to achievement and opportunity for their students.

“We’re losing our kids … there are some of them that are staying quite nicely connected to comprehensive distance learning but many are not,” she said. “The attendance and engagement is definitely different and down from prior years.”

Halliday said that with all of the recent changes, she found herself “in a bit of a quandary because I know there are people that want to come back and we’ve got people that don’t want to come back. That is from a staff perspective as well as a family perspective.”

A small group of patents have been protesting in recent days in front of the school district office with the message that they want their kids back in classrooms.

“I promised people that we are not going to throw way outside the metrics and put people at risk,” Halliday said. “I know we have parents who are advocating strongly for their children to be back in school, so we’re kind of in a place where as the state fluctuates, we are too.”

When hybrid learning does materialize, parents will have the option to continue entirely with distance learning.

The school board’s discussion with Halliday continued from many angles, including just what a day might look like for students and options with hybrid-distance learning scheduling. Administrators also provided their perspectives specific to their schools.

In the end, they all expressed support for the plan.

“I want to be able to make the decisions that are best for us and I know that not everybody’s going to be happy and that’s the way it’s been all the way through,” Halliday said. “But by golly, we’re going to keep doing the best we can.”

Dave Dunham, speaking on behalf of Philomath Education Association, said in a statement during the public comments period that teachers are committed to the process of bringing students back to school.

“There are a lot of moving parts and the targets shift continuously,” Dunham said, reading the statement. “There are no easy answers. PEA is urging the district to engage in a measured planning process that utilizes data and best practices that will ensure student and educator safety at all levels.”

The statement asked the district and school board to focus on three points:

• Cooperate with community and staff members to develop and share detailed plans at all grade levels in the interest of creating a school environment that is as safe as possible.

• Ensure technological continuity and bandwidth availability for all students and teachers. A hybrid model still includes distance learning components and that type of strain on the district system hasn’t been fully tested.

• Give the public health system a chance to catch up with needs. “Members of our school community will be more able to fulfill the needs of students when they are protected by the vaccine.”

Halliday provided a detailed history of the return-to-classroom plans and how they changed over time. It began Aug. 4 when the district had planned to start classes in September with K-3 students in hybrid learning and grades 4-12 in distance learning.

But a couple of weeks later, a lack of required personal protective equipment forced the district to change all students to distance learning.

In September, a phase-in plan was in the works and on Oct. 1, state adjustments in metrics required all students to remain in the distance learning model. In the following weeks, the metrics kept students learning at home.

Halliday said a common question is why can’t Philomath have students at school like Monroe or Alsea? She said there had been a special small schools option that provided special considerations for those smaller districts. In addition, schools that had started up could remain in session.

“If we had been able to start in September, we could have feasibly continued to have students in school at this time,” she said, but added it was never an option for Philomath to start under the restrictions.

Then some changes at the state level began to have impacts on direction. On Dec. 21 in a one-day special session of the state legislature, House Bill 4402 passed to offer liability protections for schools against COVID-related lawsuits.

It was an important step because with no liability insurance policies that would cover that particular risk, schools could potentially be devastated financially with one lawsuit and set a district back even further from an eventual reopening.

On Dec. 23, a reopening plan focused on hybrid learning was sent out to families with return-to-classroom dates that ranged from Jan. 11 for the youngest to Feb. 2 for high-schoolers, if the numbers allowed. That same day, Gov. Kate Brown announced that return-to-school metrics would now be advisory, rather than mandatory.

The governor’s announcement provided more flexibility, Halliday said, but the district did not want to discount the metrics entirely in the interest of keeping everyone safe.

“We chose to be able to wait until after winter break to be able to make our decisions about what this meant for us rather than pulling everybody back in their break time to be able to make the decisions,” she said.

But then on Jan. 7, school districts were notified that the liability protections that had been offered through the Dec. 21 bill would no longer apply if schools reopened outside of the Oregon metrics.

“That prompted us to say if we’re outside that, we have to be very thoughtful about what our plans and considerations are,” she said.

Halliday said that the Benton County Health Department and the district’s legal counsel believed Philomath was in good enough shape to move forward with a plan.

Halliday sent out an updated plan to families with a phased-in reopening plan that would begin with the lowest grades on Jan. 19 leading up to high school on Feb. 16, if possible.

By the beginning of this week, Benton County schools were back in the required distance learning category. As a result, the district’s legal counsel advised that Philomath remain in distance learning because of the liability issue and with new guidance from the state to be clarified by Jan. 19.

“So we had legal counsel saying ‘not a smart idea to open doors.’ Benton County Health Department when I got in touch with them said ‘remain in CDL right now, don’t open your doors,’” Halliday said. “That was the difference between a Friday and a Monday in being able to take a look at what the information told us in terms of metrics.”

On Tuesday, the day of the school board meeting, the governor’s office announced a plan to begin vaccinating “child care providers and early learning and K-12 educators and staff” on Jan. 23 when additional vaccine shipments are expected to arrive from the federal government.

As of the evening of the meeting, Halliday didn’t know what that vaccination plan might look like for Philomath’s educators.