Oregon schools affected by wildfire given flexibility under new state waivers

By Rob Manning (OPB)
Oct. 9, 2020 2:54 p.m. Updated: Oct. 9, 2020 3:51 p.m.

Three school districts hit hardest by three different Oregon fires are getting more latitude, and another 25 districts are getting more limited flexibility.

The wildfires that scorched thousands of acres in a matter of hours a month ago devastated thousands of homes, from the banks of the McKenzie River east of Eugene to the canyons below Mount Hood to the low hills between Ashland and Medford of southern Oregon.

The fast-moving Almeda Fire burned the homes of 700 students in the Phoenix-Talent School District.


“It had a huge impact,” Phoenix-Talent superintendent Brent Barry told “Think Out Loud” this week. “And to add to that, it was really the most vulnerable and the families that were having the most challenging time in the first place, that lost everything.”

A partially burned American flag flutters in the breeze in front of the remains of a mobile home in Talent, Ore., on Thursday, Sept. 10. More than 50 mobile homes in this park were completely destroyed by the Almeda Fire which came through the area Tuesday.

A partially burned American flag flutters in the breeze in front of the remains of a mobile home in Talent, Ore., on Thursday, Sept. 10. More than 50 mobile homes in this park were completely destroyed by the Almeda Fire which came through the area Tuesday.

Brandon Swanson / OPB

Barry said his staff has been working with nonprofit partners to support people who lost their homes and have been traumatized by the disaster.

And while Barry acknowledges that rebuilding neighborhoods and supporting the mental health of children and families will take years, the southern Oregon district has already reopened school, the same way that the vast majority of schools are doing it this school year: through distance learning.

State waiver for fire-damaged communities

In a message to district leaders this week, Oregon health and education officials laid out special rules for districts that were most directly hit by wildfires, providing an easier path toward in-person instruction if school leaders want it.

“Many students and families in communities impacted by wildfires are still displaced from active evacuation zones, loss of access to their home, or have seen a total loss of housing and infrastructure that has made accessing Comprehensive Distance Learning impossible,” reads the emergency waiver dated Oct. 5.

“Additionally, some schools that serve communities impacted by the wildfires in Oregon are experiencing significant and widespread loss of internet connectivity, technology devices, and safe and supportive places to participate in online Comprehensive Distance Learning,” the waiver continues.

The waiver suggests that between the technological problems and traumatic circumstances that students have faced — and the stabilizing influence that schools can provide — the state is offering relief from restrictions in place due to the coronavirus pandemic. The new guidance offers an opportunity for in-person instruction for all students at three districts: Phoenix-Talent, the McKenzie School District, where the Holiday Farm Fire burned, and the Santiam Canyon School District, which was devastated by the Beachie Creek Fire.

“If eligible public and private schools concur that current social emotional, mental health, and basic shelter and nutrition needs of students impacted by wildfires in Oregon outweigh the potential negative effects of increased of COVID-19 risks, which may be mitigated by employing additional safety measures; the schools may provide in-person services with additional provisions," the waiver said.

The waiver also allows flexibility for another 25 school districts, including Beaverton, Lincoln County, Medford and Springfield, to students “who have been displaced due to loss of their home or that they remain in Level 3 evacuation zones.”

Phoenix-Talent planning for in-person classes

Barry said his district is looking to open up to in-person instruction as soon as next month.

“We received that information and have the ability to do some in-person for our students who have been most impacted by the fire,” Barry said.

“We’re hopeful that we can meet the COVID mitigation parameters and have some in-person learning, maybe starting second quarter, so beginning of November.”


The waiver has two main criteria for allowing in-person instruction:

The first part requires the district to spell out the need, based on trauma students are experiencing, the loss of homes or access to homes, the lack of technology or other infrastructure, “and/or a lack of basic services” such as nutrition and health services.

The second set of conditions calls on districts to abide by certain COVID-19 mitigation steps, including testing, controlled entry, limited student cohort sizes, and plans for how to respond in case of a positive coronavirus case. And, the waiver calls on districts to provide a statement acknowledging the competing forces: the risks of COVID-19, the disruption of wildfires and the role of in-person instruction.

The state also lays out certain mandates not related to the coronavirus, including support for families to continue distance learning if that’s what they prefer, an ongoing requirement that schools provide a legally adequate education to all students, and a ban on transfers from other districts.

McKenzie River, Santiam Canyon may use waiver to stay online

Leaders at the other two districts eligible to use the waiver for all of their students don’t have immediate plans to pursue in-person learning. Instead, superintendents of the McKenzie River and Santiam Canyon districts say they’re likely sticking with online learning, but they may use the waiver to help that work more easily.

McKenzie River Supt. Lane Tompkins said in an email to OPB that because of how disruptive the Holiday Farm Fire was to local communities and ongoing worries about the coronavirus, in-person instruction doesn’t seem likely for some time.

“We may work with community partners to set up sites in our community for students to access the internet while following COVID-19 precautions and standards set by the state,” Tompkins said. “We do not see staff and students returning to campus for face-to-face instruction for quite some time due to concerns about COVID-19 and the loss of homes in our community.”

Tompkins also pointed out it’s hard to open school for students when they’re not around.

“This waiver may not be utilized by the district for some time, as a majority of our students are still displaced from their homes,” Tompkins said.

Santiam Canyon Supt. Todd Miller said he’s not planning to bring students back to school soon because of smoke damage to the buildings.

“Quite frankly, our schools aren’t ready with all the cleaning that needs to be done,” Miller said.

He said getting the schools in shape could take a month or more.

“Some kids, we can’t wait five weeks,” Miller said.

Instead, district leaders are looking to set up spaces where students who have lost power, lost technology — and, for dozens of children, their homes — can go to do school work and get the support of caring adults.

“First, we’ll continue to with distance learning, but provide places for kids to do distance learning,” Miller said. He suggested possibly cleaning up the gymnasium or finding modular classrooms that could possibly be moved into areas close to where the fire burned, but families have returned.

The logistics are challenging. Miller estimated that as many as a quarter of his students lost homes in the Beachie Creek Fire, as did eight school staff members. But even where homes are still standing, much of the infrastructure that children and families rely on — plumbing, electricity and internet infrastructure — is in ruins.

Miller said he’s driven areas in which entire neighborhoods are gone. He’s hoping that with the internet hubs set up under the new state waiver, the district can also help families. Miller hopes to work with social service providers to have food, clothing and other resources available at the digital learning sites, for communities destroyed by the fire.

“I think, What else can we do for these families?" he said.