HOOD RIVER — Hood River County School District Superintendent Rich Polkinghorn shared the district’s operating and COVID precaution plans at the Aug. 25 board meeting. The first day of school will be Sept. 7.

“This year we start the year still gripped in a COVID pandemic,” Polkinghorn told the board in his opening remarks.

“… When the state of Oregon is in a health crisis, the governor is authorized to issue executive orders which carry the force of law, and we follow the law,” he continued. “I’ve heard from people in this community suggesting or downright telling me that I should not, or the board should not follow the laws in the state of Oregon. I do not have the authority to do that, nor do I intend to. The board does not have such authority either. We’re working internally on procedures to address this directive with our staff. We’re continuing to evaluate how this vaccine mandate will impact our ability to operate our school district.”

Polkinghorn said he and Human Resources Director Catherine Dalbey meet weekly with Trish Elliot, Hood River County Health Department director, to discuss COVID activity, particularly among school-aged children, and best practices for handling COVID positive staff and students.

As of the meeting last Wednesday, there were 108 active COVID cases in the county, as reported by Oregon Health Authority.

Polkinghorn later outlined the Safe Return to In-Person Instruction and Continuity of Services Plan, which centers on two key concepts: Mental health supports and health and safety strategies; the State Operational Plan is posted in full on the district’s website.

“The first part of the plan is centered around mental health supports, knowing that our students and our staff — and all of us — have been through a very traumatic last year and a half,” Polkinghorn said.

“Care and Connection Week” will start things off, with staff reaching out to students to foster positive relationships and personal connections, he said, “making sure students know they’re safe and there are trusted adults at school who are caring for them and will be attentive to their emotional needs.”

There will also be weekly time in all schools dedicated to social emotional learning and supports. At the elementary level, that will happen in the main classrooms; at the secondary level, that’s an advisory period, started last year.

“That’s a place for students to go and have one staff member at the school where those students can connect on a weekly basis,” Polkinghorn said, noting that Hood River Valley High is planning for two such 20-minute periods a week.

“We are so fortunate in Hood River County — we have such awesome partnerships with so many agencies here,” he said. “The focus on mental health really asks us to reach out and collaborate with our community partners, things like our school based health center, our partnership with One Community Health, our partnership with The Next Door Inc., those are all community based resources that we’ve established partnerships with that we use for our students to give them the supports they need …”

The second part is the health and safety of students returning to classes full time in the midst of a global pandemic.

There are three state mandates the district must follow: “Masking Requirements in Schools” (OAR 333-019-1015), which covers students and staff; “Masking Requirements In Indoor Spaces” (OAR 333-019-1025), which covers all people in public spaces; and Vaccination Mandate for K-12 Employees, Substitutes and Volunteers” (not yet numbered). He noted Gov. Kate Brown did recognize medical and religious exemptions, but the district is still sorting out what that means for staff.

The rest is advisory — recommended, but not required. The district will share key practices for reducing the spread of COVID-19 in schools with its families and community partners. The most powerful tool to stop the spread is vaccination, he said.

Vaccination rates in Hood River County as of Aug. 20 are 77.2%, he said, with youth ages 12-17 at 64.3% — both among the highest in Oregon.

Other key practices include protective equipment, physical distancing, hand hygiene, airflow and circulation, cohorts (conducting all activities in small groups that remain together over time with minimal mixing of groups), isolation and quarantine, and environmental cleaning and disinfection.

Parents keeping students home when they’re sick is an important part of this.

“When people think of being sick with COVID, they immediately think of being in a hospital on a ventilator,” said Polkinghorn. “And really, COVID oftentimes presents like a cold or the sniffles or a sore throat and people don’t think it’s a COVID illness because they’re not super sick. So it’s really important for students and staff, if you’re feeling sick at all that you stay home.”

Last year, there was no COVID transmission at school, but that didn’t mean that schools didn’t have COVID.

“We had a lot of success last year in school. We definitely had COVID show up at our schools, and that’s going to happen again this year,” he said. “What we didn’t see last year was the spread of COVID at school because we teach kids how to wear a mask, we model that behavior, we teach kids how to wash their hands and we model that behavior, because we do physical distancing and cohorting and all of those things. We saw zero cases of COVID spread out of our schools last year. Zero. But that’s not to say we didn’t see COVID. COVID shows up. And it’ll show up this year too.”

A big part of the district’s plan is to get kids outside as much as possible, be that in a learning setting or eating lunch. The district is currently working to procure outdoor tents for secondary schools to give students a place to stay dry as they eat or visit.

“We live in the northwest. It’s cold. It rains here. Sometimes it snows here, but also, we can bring jackets and hats and go outside still even when it’s cold,” he said.

One other item of interest is transportation — district staff has been registering students who will ride buses this year, and there will be assigned seats required on all bus routes, with face coverings required. Elementary students will also have assigned seating in their classrooms and the cafeteria.

Further details will be shared at all school sites before the Sept. 7 start date.