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As Virus Spreads, Teacher Shortage Drives School Closures in Central Oregon

Emily Cureton / Crook County School District

This week, some Central Oregon schools that had been offering in-person instruction canceled those plans for the rest of the year, as more staffers and students quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure.

In Deschutes County, Redmond school officials paused classroom learning after 91 students and staffers were told to isolate, according to the Bulletin. In neighboring Crook County, School Superintendent Sara Johnson sent a letter Monday, informing parents that the rural district of about 3,000 students would shift back to comprehensive distance learning next week.
“The impact of quarantines due to potential exposures has severely impacted our staffing levels,” reads Johnson’s letter, which states the district hopes to return to in-person instruction Jan. 4. “However, with rising COVID-19 cases in the community, we want parents to be prepared for the possibility that Crook County may not meet the state metrics for opening schools.”
Some 22 Crook County staff and 12 students have been told to quarantine in the last two weeks, said district spokesman Jason Carr, with three staffers testing positive for the virus, and three awaiting results as of Wednesday.
“We just saw the writing on the wall,” Carr said. “We can’t operate schools without teachers.”
But some county residents are trying to find ways to stop the return to distance learning. When Crook County’s top elected official heard about the staffing issue, he offered to become a substitute teacher, then set about recruiting others via social media.
A Dec. 9 social media post by Crook County Judge Seth Crawford asks: “Why can’t parents volunteer to substitute teach and we just keep our schools open?”
Crook County resumed K-3 classroom learning in September, and brought older grades back to school on a hybrid model in October.
Crawford, who serves as chair of the county commission and county administrator, told OPB he ran the wording by the superintendent before posting. He said he is working with the school district — which contracts with the High Desert Educational Service District to hire substitute staff — to try and speed up the process for approving more fill-in teachers.
“Even during normal years, during the flu season and different things, they have a lot of times today they’re real tight on substitutes already. Having a larger pool is just going to be helpful from here on out,” Crawford said.
His post immediately lit up with comments and local residents interested in getting approved. The district’s director of human resources, Sean Corrigan, said about 25 people called his office for more information within a few hours.
Carr, the district spokesman, cautioned that while he appreciates the intent, “unfortunately, there are barriers.”
Each substitute teacher needs to have a bachelor’s degree, obtain a license, pass a background check, and be added to the pool through a process. Volunteers of any kind aren’t allowed in the building due to pandemic restrictions. The No. 1 barrier, Carr said, is “the COVID environment and the regulations at the state level.”
“Our health department is certainly concerned that we’re not going to see a decline in cases over Christmas break. And in fact, it may be an increase because they’re seeing a bump due to Thanksgiving and a lot of family and social gatherings,” Carr said.
Both Deschutes and Crook are among 25 counties considered at “extreme risk” for COVID-19 spread, according to Oregon Health Authority data.
Crook County resumed K-3 in-person instruction in September and older grades in October. It had been allowed to continue operating until Jan. 4 under the state’s “Safe Harbor designation,” which allows districts in less populous areas to keep classrooms going as long as local COVID-19 conditions met certain benchmarks.

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