Summer is traditionally a time off for teachers and school staff, but this year, of course, is different. Oregon school districts have until August 1st to submit a plan to the state on how they’ll meet COVID-19 guidelines this year. One rural Lane County district did the work early.
Jodi O’Mara is Superintendent of the Mapleton School District, which has about 165 kids from the area 45 miles west of Eugene. She represents small rural districts on a state advisory board, and raised her hand to create a sample plan for how they’ll run school within the state’s coronavirus guidelines. It’s been available for weeks as a template.
“It’s important for all of us," she says, "no matter what size district we are, to support each other and say: That’s a great idea, use that idea, ’cause that’s the only way we’re going to get through this.”
O’Mara is grateful for the adaptability and creativity of students, families and staff. Still, she says it’s been a lot of work, admitting, “It was really … intensive, to create the plan. I was on the phone with ODE for over four hours, and then that was just the first run at it.”
The initial blueprint is 20 pages, packed with details on everything from limiting the use of bathrooms and entrances, to keeping groups separated during food service and transportation, which, says O'Mara, "is actually what is going to be driving our schedule, start and end times, because our bus routes are full. Our Deadwood route, the little kiddos sit three to a seat. Well now, it’s one to a seat, unless they’re a sibling cohort. And so we have to run double bus runs.”
That means younger kids start and end school earlier. Paying bus drivers for longer hours and having staff sanitize bathrooms and shared spaces means added payroll cost. Buying PPE and new classroom equipment also adds up.
“For instance" says O'Mara, "all cloth chairs and furniture have to go away, they have to be able to wipe down. Well, we may need to purchase new chairs.” She says the price of these items is rising, and PPE especially is becoming scarce.
“We have been lucky enough to get some federal dollars to be able to support that," says O'Mara. "Otherwise it’s going to come out of our budget and that will be a significant impact.”
They’ve been tracking COVID expenses since March, and CARES Act funds have covered the extra costs, so far. However, there’s a big budget crunch coming because of a slowed economy, and, she believes, "We’re going to be in the guidance through the whole entire school year. And whether that means we’re on site to start and and then go into distance learning and back into on site, I believe we’re going to be in this for the remainder of the 20/21 school year.”
O’Mara says they’ll need to be creative with field trips, sports, and performances. But she says planning to be in school is best for their community. A survey showed 90 percent of Mapleton families wanted in-person learning.
“Right now our plan is on-site learning," says O"Mara. "We still have to have a plan for: What does the model look like for hybrid, or for short-term distance learning, and for comprehensive distance learning? So we are planning to have a plan for each of those.”
O’Mara says they’ll probably need to move between plans as the year unfolds. She expects there may be local infections or changes in state guidance, but she remains optimistic, noting “People are resilient and they’re adaptive. And I think as long as we are doing the best we can, especially for our kiddos, for us that’s going to be the most important thing.”
Larger and mid-sized school districts have different constraints such as not enough classroom space for physical distancing, so an on-site plan isn’t feasible for them. Eugene 4J, like most big districts, is working on a hybrid model. Whatever the plan, teachers and staff will put in extra hours this summer to create the best environment they can for students and families this fall.