Planning school schedules is always a challenge for a small district: How can you ensure that all students have the best possible access to limited numbers of electives, etc.? The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a massive spanner into the works.

Sisters schools are each crafting plans for the 2020-21 school year that must revolve around mitigating the risk of contagion from the COVID-19 virus. These plans are being created in a shifting environment of increasing COVID-19 cases in Deschutes County, including a few in the 97759 zip code — and shifting and evolving guidance from the state.

Sisters School District Superintendent Curt Scholl offered a status report on planning to The Nugget:

“We have skeletons. We’re planning right now K-6 in-person; we have the capacity for that.”

Middle and high school planning is more complicated and Scholl said that schools are looking at a “hybrid” plan that includes a modified schedule and a mix of in-person and distance learning.

Schools are being asked to maintain separate “cohorts” of students, so that any outbreak of COVID-19 can readily be traced. That creates challenges for delivering different levels of instruction and providing electives.

“To keep all those cohorts separate is almost impossible on a comprehensive high school schedule. Math is going to be the biggest challenge in trying to keep those cohorts separate,” Scholl said.

That’s because different students in a cohort will need instruction at different levels.

Keeping the cohorts separate is important, because state guidance requires that a cohort be isolated if a “cluster” of COVID-19 cases develops.

“The biggest the cohort, the bigger the risk of having to shut down the entire school,” Scholl said.

Scholl said the schools recognize how important co-curricular activities are to students and families — and there’s just no clear message yet on how they will proceed.

“We’re not sure what’s going to happen with bands, choirs, plays, athletics,” Scholl said.

Surveys have gone out from individual schools seeking input from families, and a general survey is also available. Scholl encourages people to weigh in at the July 29 Superintendent’s Coffee via Zoom or contact him directly at curtiss.scholl@ssd6.org; or call 541-549-8521. (See related article for ways to weigh in.)

The district is to receive additional guidance from the Oregon Department of Education this week and again on August 11, and will continue to develop plans that must be submitted to ODE by August 15.

“Our plan is to have a really good plan going into the board meeting, which is (August 12) and then we have to submit it by the 15th,” Scholl said.

An engaged and supportive community has Sisters schools positioned to cope with the strains of what promises to be a complicated and challenging school year, but Scholl acknowledges that there’s no pretending things are going to roll along smoothly.

“We’re better equipped (than many other districts) and we’ll be ready,” he said. “But it’s not going to be perfect.”