LINCOLN COUNTY — Class begins Monday, Sept. 21, for Lincoln County School District students, having been delayed a week due to the Echo Mountain complex wildfire, as schools adapt to existing and new emergencies.
At least several staff and dozens of students are home insecure after wildfires last week swept through the north county, and many more were temporarily displaced when a large section of Lincoln City was evacuated on Wednesday, Sept. 10. The school district gave teachers the rest of the week off and postponed distance learning for a week, while meal service commenced as scheduled Sept. 14 on bus routes and at four school pick-up locations.
For now, the district will operate with all comprehensive distance learning and an alternative online platform. That could change “fairly soon” for a limited number students, thanks to improved COVID-19 infection rates in the county, according to an emailed update from Superintendent Karen Gray.
Gray told the school board during its meeting Tuesday that principals in the north county had immediately reached out to all families in wildfire evacuated areas, some who’d fled hundreds of miles to stay with relatives, and the district was now seeking internet-connected locations for displaced students to begin school on Sept. 21. Gray said there were 357 district students who lived in Otis, and at least 31 lost their home or did not know its fate. They also knew of three staff members whose residences were destroyed.
The school district, Sodexo meal service and First Student transportation staff, as well as the bus fleet, were mobilized throughout the evacuation and subsequent emergency response, Sarah Hibbs, school district transportation liaison, told the school board. Drivers evacuated buses from the affected area until some had to leave to evacuate their own homes, after which drivers from other areas pitched in. They worked with the Red Cross to make the buses available on standby for human evacuations, Hibbs said, and the next day they prepared and delivered meals to evacuees at the Newport Recreation Center within two hours of learning of the need. Starting Friday, Sept. 11, staff were stationed in the county call center and dispatched buses providing rides for individuals returning to areas where “go now” orders were lifted.
Even as fires approached the northeast outskirts of Lincoln City, school district administration and the Lincoln County Education Association were negotiating the terms under which members would start instruction this Monday. The agreement signed at about 4 p.m. Sept. 10 includes requirements and exceptions for instruction from school buildings while students are at home, a key sticking point in negotiations thus far. The district wants teachers on site when possible for professional development and structure; the union says requiring employees in buildings could endanger those at a high risk of COVID-19 infection and the general public, and many teachers can’t find child care for their own children (already limited local options have been diminished by the pandemic).
The teachers union president, Peter Lohonyay, described the signed memorandum of understanding as a “meeting in the middle.” The text provides two exceptions for on-site instruction. Those with documented health conditions can seek accommodations including working from home, transfer and available leave time. Those with child care concerns will be permitted to work from home with a plan approved by their principal that provides for a distraction-free work environment, adherence to a daily schedule and other standards. The exception can be revoked based on documented observations of failure to meet those standards, with an opportunity first given to correct the problem.
Lohonyay had high praise for the district’s response to the wildfires, and its creation and maintenance of a massive food service operation, available to any child up to 18 years off age (hundreds of thousands of meals were served in the spring and summer, and once-daily food delivery to dozens of stops on bus routes — https://lincoln.k12.or.us/resources/family/bus — will include three meals daily starting Monday). He said they’d soon discuss a memorandum of understanding for limited in-person instruction, which could begin relatively soon.
Gray told the school board Tuesday the district had met public health metrics for bringing K-3 students into buildings three weeks in a row, and metrics for on-site instruction K-12 had been met for two weeks running. They were waiting to see the effect of Labor Day and evacuation crowds on infection rates, Gray said, before bringing first kindergarten and career and technical education students into classrooms for a phased transition to hybrid learning. Once students are allowed back on campus, Gray said, the district can begin providing child care in school buildings. It plans to have four non-campus sites in Lincoln City, Newport, Toledo and Waldport open by Oct. 12, with slots for as many as 80 school-aged children of essential workers.
Oct. 12 is also the date the district hopes to resume some sports activities — speed and agility training, with no high-contact sports like football and wrestling.
Strong language in Gray’s emailed update urged parents to enroll their children in school, indicating that registration is lagging on the cusp of the first day of classes. Registration can be completed online at lincoln.k12.or.us/enroll. Classes begin Sept. 21 for secondary and all Edmentum platform students. Elementary teachers will meet with families Sept. 21 through 25 and begin comprehensive distance learning classes Sept. 28.
The district has created a web page for wildfire assistance resources at lincoln.k12.or.us/wildfire-support-resources.