School bus
Concerns of teacher and critical staff shortages remain but for now, Philomath students have been able to remain in classrooms. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The latest surge of COVID-19 infections in Oregon has forced school districts to re-examine their teaching options as higher numbers of educators and students test positive. In Philomath, Superintendent of Schools Susan Halliday said Wednesday that the plan is to remain in classrooms unless too many teachers and support staff call in sick because of quarantining.

The school district’s mantra has been to move forward with making decisions locally, Halliday said, and that includes a determination on when action needs to occur based on the availability of classroom support.

“If we get to a place at a school district or even in an individual classroom level where we don’t have the adult support to do the work, then we may look at a temporary shift of having to do distance learning,” Halliday said. “But our overall desire at every level is to keep kids in school as much and as long as we are able and we’re hoping that we can ride through this spike without having to close anybody down.”

At Kings Valley Charter School, the number of absences forced a temporary shift to distance learning, a plan that will remain in place until Jan. 24.

“We were out too many teachers and critical staff is the main one,” said Mark Hazelton, KVCS interim business manager. “The protocols for isolating — having to isolate two classrooms and one bus route — that combination of those put us over the top.”

Hazelton said Tuesday that the school has seen “fairly normal absences with the kids until late last week and then we had enough kids with positive tests to cause us to have to isolate these classrooms.”

Hazelton added that the Jan. 24 return date was calculated after taking quarantine days into consideration with the various teachers, staff and classrooms.

The Philomath School District has been seeing shortages of teachers. To combat the situation, the state implemented a new emergency substitute teaching license at the beginning of October. Various safeguarding requirements are part of the process — including submitting an application and passing a background check — but it suspends the requirement that a substitute must have a bachelor’s degree or prior training.

Halliday said Philomath is in a better place with that option in place.

“One of the things that we keep looking at really every day is how many students are out, how many staff are out?” Halliday said. “And we just keep monitoring that to be able to know. Right now, we’re not to a place where we’re that tight on the staffing to be able to close it down. But that’s the balance we’re looking for … right now we seem to be in pretty good shape.”

As of Wednesday, Halliday said the school district is seeing only slightly higher absence numbers from students than what would be expected during a normal cold and flu season.

“We’re a little bit higher on absences, but not significantly higher than what we would normally expect in December just with cold and flu and things like that,” she said. “It’s a little bit raised, but it’s not to a place where we would say there’s enough kids out that we really need to make a shift.”

Halliday sat in on state-level meetings earlier in the week but nothing new of consequence was learned.

“The biggest thing was being able to hit upon the (Oregon) Health Authority’s new information about shortening of quarantine timelines,” she said. “ Given that, they wanted to make sure everybody understands what some of those changes look like. But as far as anybody at a state level saying, ‘you will shut down a school at such a time or you will do this with your indoor sports’ — there was none of that.”

Health officials advise those who test positive to quarantine at home for five days as soon as symptoms emerge to avoid infecting others. The OHA advises them not to go out while they have a fever and without the help of medicine. Those who test positive but don’t have symptoms should be isolated for five days.

After the five days, the OHA said people can venture out, but they should wear a mask for another five days.

For extracurricular activities, a number of cancellations have occurred around the state and a few schools and events are not allowing spectators. Philomath’s leadership has been talking about what to do with such activities if COVID conditions worsen.

“Our big thing is we believe strongly in the opportunities that athletics and activities provide for students and we really don’t want to have to shut things down for the students as far as playing,” Halliday said. “If that means, in order to continue to allow play to occur, we have to limit spectators or anything like that, we will. But we’re in a conversation right now to be able to say, ‘where are we, what is it we need to do and let’s listen to what else is happening so that we know.’ But our target is really to do as much to keep the students involved as we can.”

A COVID-19 vaccination clinic for children and their families took place on Monday at the high school and Halliday reported positive results.

“They gave almost 200 COVID vaccines in that evening … and lots of boosters, lots of kids, and then they gave 30-some odd flu shots,” Halliday said. “But it was a steady evening; had a lot of people coming through.”

A second vaccination clinic is scheduled for Jan. 31 at the high school.

“Benton County Health Department does a great job of bringing in their folks and bringing in the teams and they know the drill,” Halliday said.