News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

COVID-19 uptick likely to delay return to school

The surging COVID-19 caseload has cast a shadow over efforts to get middle school students back into the classroom.

In a letter sent to parents Thursday, November 19, Superintendent Curt Scholl addressed the questions and confusion about getting fifth and sixth graders at Sisters Middle School back into the classroom under the “hybrid” model amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Rising numbers of infections in Deschutes County have resulted in a move into the “orange zone” of the metrics lined out by the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education. Being in the orange zone means a delay in getting fifth graders back into the middle school building.

Deschutes County reported a total rate of 196.4 cases per 100,000 for the week ending November 14, placing county schools very near the red zone rate of 200 or more cases per 100,000.

The infection rate was on track to worsen further last week as the 60 new cases of COVID-19 that were reported on Friday, November 20, marked the highest single total since the start of the pandemic.

Scholl said, “The path to in-person instruction for our fifth grade while in the orange zone requires a successful return by the previous grade level (this is defined as four weeks of successful return of our fourth grade), a conversation with our Local Public Health Authority, and COVID case counts that are trending into the yellow zone.”

As of now, the earliest date for fifth graders to be able to return to school would be December 7, which will require a downturn in COVID-19 case numbers.

Fourth graders returned to school on November 10, but infection trends are clearly headed away from the yellow zone, putting the return of fifth graders in jeopardy of being further postponed.

Scholl said, “We will make the decision for Monday, December 7 based on the metrics being released on Monday, November 30. If the metrics do not allow for us to open, then the next date to re-engage our fifth grade will be Monday, January 11, based on the metrics released on January 4, 2021.”

Sisters Elementary School, serving preschool through fourth grade, is currently operating under a “Safe Harbor” designation that allows schools that have been open to in-person instruction to remain open and continue under cooperation with the local health authority. The “Safe Harbor” designation at the state level is scheduled to operate through January 4, when new metrics will be in place. So for now, Sisters Elementary will continue under the “hybrid” model in which students are instructed in person Monday-Thursday and from home on Fridays.

The two-week statewide lockdown or “freeze” on restaurants, businesses, and gatherings put in place by Governor Kate Brown to help slow the spread of infections is scheduled to end December 2.

In an updated announcement on November 18 that also impacts students, the Oregon Health Authority released further guidance via an executive order from Brown, stating that all indoor K-12 sports activities are prohibited through December 2 as well.

The order states, “All indoor recreational sports are prohibited at this time.”

Sisters High School students began winter training November 16, but had not been engaging in traditional practice due to restrictions on contact sports, according to Athletic Director Gary Thorson. Thorson said that the alpine ski team has been able to continue outdoor training and some students have also engaged in some outdoor strength training.

Scholl grieves the impact on students and families resulting from the ongoing restrictions and ended his letter encouraging everyone to continue being vigilant in preventing further spread of the virus.

“I would reiterate, we need all Deschutes County citizens to be leaders when it comes to the COVID protocols,” he said. “We need continued vigilance around fighting the spread of this virus. For the sake of our students, our vulnerable populations, and everyone, please continue to follow the physical-distancing, hand-washing, and mask-wearing protocols that have been put in place to stop the spread of this virus.”


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