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Medford School District Begins Return To In-Person Learning

First graders at Wilson Elementary sit in Erica LeBleu's class during their second full day back in class.
Erik Neumann / JPR
First graders at Wilson Elementary sit in Erica LeBleu's class during their second full day back in class.

Schools across Oregon are starting to reopen for in-person learning. This week, the Medford School District’s youngest students are learning what it means to go back to school during the pandemic.

First graders at Wilson Elementary are in their second full day back at school in months in Erica LeBleu’s class on Monday. Fourteen students sit physically distanced, wearing masks as they practice language arts vocabulary, and LeBleu threads between desks helping sound out words.

Among the changes this year, LeBleu says her students apply hand sanitizer when they come and go from class, and supplies like pencils and erasers are allotted to each student – no sharing.

“I put blue tape around their desks because I had to measure the distance and make sure all the desks were six feet apart,” she says. “I just tell them ‘Okay, stay on your property.’ I call it their property, so they know right away if they’re kind of getting too close to someone.”

Outdoor playground toys like tetherballs are taken down from their poles, sanitized and switched between classes at recess. Lines of kids walk between classrooms holding their arms up in “zombie” or “superman” formation to keep their hands to themselves.

LeBleu says with all the changes she’s been trying hard to keep her classroom environment comfortable since kids have been out of school for a year now.

“Keeping the distance and trying to make it homey at the same time,” she says.

Kids across Oregon are in the process of returning to in-person learning. Governor Brown pledged to have schools in Oregon reopen by mid-February.

So far, about 70% of schools in the state are doing some form of on-site, hybrid or limited in-person learning, according to the Oregon Department of Education. Many of those reopened schools are in more rural parts of the state, while the majority of schools in the Portland metro area have opted for continuing with comprehensive distance learning.

Bret Champion is the superintendent of schools for the Medford School District. He says he feels good about the district’s public health precautions.

“One hundred percent, we feel confident that we have what we need to open,” he says.

Champion says they’ve worked with Jackson County Public Health to have contact tracers ready for the inevitable coronavirus cases, they’ve upgraded school air ventilation systems with high filtration MERV 13 filters, and, starting in March, they’ll have rapid COVID tests at all of their schools in case someone feels sick.

Teachers and staff have also had the chance to get the COVID vaccine.

“We have made sure that all of our employees have the option to get the vaccine should they choose to do so,” Champion says.

He says over half the district’s staff has been vaccinated at this point.

Eagle Point Middle School, just north of Medford, started classes on January 25th.

“The hallways are pretty empty. All the kids are wearing masks,” says Principal Allen Barber. “I would say the kids are doing a great job with the social distancing.”

Eagle Point has sixth, seventh and eighth graders back on alternating days with about 160 students in the building at a time. Barber says some students have left out of concerns over COVID-like symptoms, but he doesn’t think there have been positive COVID cases at the school.

“Certainly not from student-to-student contact,” he says.

On Tuesday, Jackson County dropped from the state's “extreme risk” to “high risk" level for the spread of the coronavirus. Statewide COVID-19 cases have been declining over the past month.

After Kindergarten and first graders, a tiered schedule of elementary and middle school students will continue going back in the Medford School District until March. Elementary school students in the Ashland School District will also return on a hybrid basis starting in the first two weeks of March, starting with the youngest students.

Medford district superintendent Champion says Oregon schools are following some of the most rigorous protocols in the country to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But going forward, he says, things will keep evolving.

“Let’s be honest, one thing that we know about this situation is that it continues to change,” Champion says. “So, we’ll open in one direction, we’ll get new guidance from CDC to OHA to Jackson County Public Health, and then we’ll be implementing that.”

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.