Oregon School District Superintendent Tom Mahoney called making it until this week without a COVID-19 adaptive pause “a good run.”
All Oregon schools will be moving to remote learning for 14 days beginning Thursday due to COVID-19 spread, Mahoney said Wednesday morning.
There are currently 14 positive cases, 132 close contacts out and 83 staff and students waiting for COVID-19 to be ruled out within the district.
“This decision is based on quarantine numbers, impact on staffing and information from the Ogle County Health Department (OCHD) that indicates they have a clear picture that there is a spread of the virus occurring among students in the district,” Mahoney said.
The remote learning period is planned to end on Dec. 2. If necessary staff is available, in-person learning will begin again on Dec. 3. All extra-curricular activities will be placed on hold for 14 days.
The OCHD recently recommended all county schools cease in-person learning from Thanksgiving break until the end of the semester due to recent high COVID-19 case numbers and holiday gathering concerns.
At its Monday meeting, the Oregon School Board unanimously decided it would not follow that advice and continue with in-person learning as long as it could.
The statement Oregon School Board President Bryan Wills read at the Monday meeting said the district’s decision did not mean a shift to remote learning wouldn’t happen during the period, as it has. Mahoney said he’s started receiving emails from confused parents asking why the school is closing after saying it wouldn’t at Monday’s meeting.
Tuesday test results were the cause for the change. Mahoney said before those, there was no need for remote learning. The district worked with the health department to have Wednesday be in-person to provide parents as much time as possible to prepare.
“On Tuesday we got tests back and confirmed there was a spread at the high school and suspected strongly there was at the elementary school,” Mahoney said. “We’ve always said if we’re the source of spread, we’ll close.”
Staffing has been an issue due to COVID-19 quarantines, Mahoney said. In the past three weeks at all buildings, the district has been 1-2 staff members away from having to shut down. The junior high and high school have been particularly challenging, Mahoney said.
Shortened staffing has impacted the quality of education, Mahoney said. Quarantined teachers had been streaming into class and staff had been shifted around, which had a negative impact on morale.
The district’s health staff is also currently bearing the load of contact tracing, which is a responsibility the OCHD handed back over in recent weeks.
“Our elementary school nurse, Sharon Hoover, said yesterday it occupied 100 percent of her time,” Mahoney said. “She was communicating with families and teachers. We might’ve staffed that position differently if OCHD told us at the beginning of the year we’d have to do that.”
Mahoney said the two week break will bring his district back to full staff. There won’t be additional mitigations after students return from the pause and the Thanksgiving holidays. If there is additional spread, it won’t be from the school and OCHD will have identified which students have it, Mahoney said.
The last day of the fall semester is Dec. 18. Mahoney wants those last two weeks with students and said having them in-person will make a “drastic” impact educationally. At Monday’s board meeting, Mahoney said he’s spoken with local mental health experts that said they’ve seen an uptick in suicide ideation in students that have been away from the classroom.
“That was in the statement we made,” Mahoney said, “That suicide ideation issue, we take it seriously and students are best served in person.”
Mahoney hasn’t seen any families request to move to remote for the entirety of the end of the semester, as OCHD recommended, but families have been given the option. It seems families may be on board with the school district’s unwavering desire to teach in person.
“For us, the question we always get is, ‘How’s it going?’ I always say, ‘At this moment, it’s going well.’ We’ve known we’re susceptible for this to occur,” Mahoney said. “I was pleased it’s been this long. We anticipated it earlier.”