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

While preparing a report to the school board for the Nov. 16 meeting, Superintendent of Schools Susan Halliday had planned to report that students in kindergarten through third grade could transition into a hybrid learning model beginning on Dec. 1.

Then on the day of the meeting, the latest COVID-19 infection numbers came in.

Now, the school district is tentatively planning to begin returning students to campus in mid-January — if the metrics allow. The peaks and valleys of the coronavirus has changed the course of many conversations among the school district’s leadership team and the plan of action will likely change again.

“The recommendations that I’d like to propose at this point, much to my chagrin, but that all K-12 students will remain in CDL (comprehensive distance learning) through winter break,” Halliday told the board. “Our limited in-person small groups can and will continue to take place as they are currently scheduled … that doesn’t need to stop.”

Besides the dismal metrics on infections — cases per 100,000 people and the test positivity rate both more than doubles — the governor’s “freeze order” that went into effect Nov. 18 played a role in the school district’s re-evaluation.

“First and foremost, we want to look out for our kids and their well-being and their learning,” Halliday said. “The second thing we want to do, based on the governor’s orders, is also to watch out for the rise of infection rates in our community and in our state and support both things in any way we can to get us back in school as soon as we are able.”

The district’s projections showed that if metrics allowed, K-3 students could tentatively return to school on Jan. 12, grades 4-8 would follow two weeks later on Jan. 26, and then high school students on Feb. 2.

As of the plan shared at the Nov. 16 board meeting, all students would remain in distance learning through the winter break. Because of the possibility that families may interact with others outside of their household or do some traveling over the holidays, the plan also calls for distance learning to then continue on Jan. 5-8 and Jan. 11 — a quarantine week in the interest of keeping people safe.

The district is able to continue limited in-person instruction for selected students.

“All of these are contingent upon metrics, but it was a way of starting to get some information out to say, ‘If we are able, we want to be able to put something forward that allows for a schedule,’” Halliday explained.

During the week of Oct. 25 to Nov. 7, Benton County’s metrics showed 78.4 cases per 100,000 and a 4.0% test positivity rate — which placed the school district in a model that would allow careful phasing in of hybrid or on-site learning, starting with K-3.

However, the Nov. 1-14 numbers showed that cases per 100,000 had skyrocketed to 161.1 and the test positivity rate stood at 9.2%. Those numbers kept the district in the “transition” phase, which requires working closely with Benton County Public Health before moving forward.

With a new plan on the table, Halliday asked the school board to allow teachers to have a two-day period to adjust to students returning.

“We’re requesting that each level be provided with two days of preparation as they come back to get classrooms in order and be prepared to teach the COVID safety protocols to students, to role play some of those safety protocols, to make sure things are in place,” Halliday said.

In the days following the November board meeting and continuing now, the district’s leadership team continues to look at the numbers and adjust accordingly. Halliday said it’s even possible that the dates that students return to campus could occur earlier than projected if those infection rates see a dramatic drop.

“It’s just been lots of conversation and going back and forth in the hope that our community knows that what we’re looking for is making the best decision we can for our kids,” Halliday said, “and we’ll get them back as soon as we can.”

Following is a list of votes taken by the Philomath School Board at its Nov. 16 meeting:
• To approve the Oregon School Boards Association as the entity to conduct a Qualities and Qualifications survey on behalf of the School Board. Motion: Skinkis. Seconded: Gerding. Vote: Passes 5-0 (Yes—Gerding, Grube, Kildea, Niemann, Skinkis). 
• To approve the second reading of Policy ACB (All Students Belong). Motion: Kildea. Seconded: Gerding. Vote: Passes 5-0 (Yes—Gerding, Grube, Kildea, Niemann, Skinkis).
• To approve setting aside two days to be specified in the future by the superintendent to prepare for a reopening of in-class instruction. Motion: Gerding. Seconded: Grube. Vote: Passes 5-0 (Yes—Gerding, Grube, Kildea, Niemann, Skinkis).
• To approve the second reading of Policy ACB-AR (Bias Incident Complaint Procedure). Motion: Gerding. Seconded: Skinkis. Vote: Passes 5-0 (Yes—Gerding, Grube, Kildea, Niemann, Skinkis).
• To approve a resolution to adopt the OSBA 2021-22 Legislative Priorities and Principles as recommended by the Legislative Policy Committee. Motion: Kildea. Seconded: Grube. Vote: Passes 5-0 (Yes—Gerding, Grube, Kildea, Niemann, Skinkis).
• To approve a Memorandum of Understanding between Philomath School District 17J and the Philomath Education Association. Motion: Kildea. Seconded: Skinkis. Vote: Passes 5-0 (Yes—Gerding, Grube, Kildea, Niemann, Skinkis).
• To approve a consent agenda that included the Oct. 19 School Board minutes, October list of bills, Resolution 2021-03 for transfer appropriations and a leave of absence request. Motion: Kildea. Seconded: Grube. Vote: Passes 5-0 (Yes—Gerding, Grube, Kildea, Niemann, Skinkis).