Community spread of COVID remains ‘major obstacle’ in returning kids to class

A state council charged with revising a plan to reopen Oregon schools met Wednesday, but Gov. Kate Brown said the increasing community spread of COVID “presents a major obstacle of returning more students to the classroom.”

The Governor’s Healthy Schools Reopening Council met to review the steps Oregon will need to take to return more students to in-person instruction in schools.

First and foremost, though, Oregon must reduce the community spread of the virus.

“In order to get our kids back into the classroom, we need concerted, community-wide efforts to drive down COVID-19 case rates––by wearing face coverings, watching our physical distance, washing our hands, and forgoing large social gatherings,” Brown said. “It’s on all of us to work together to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, so we can open schools and keep them open safely.”

As of this week, only two counties currently meet Oregon’s metrics for in-person instruction for all grades – including Crook County, but the district is in jeopardy of having to return older students back to online only.

However, Oregon as a whole is exceeding the statewide 5% positivity rate maximum allowed for schools to move forward with reopening, Brown said.

Seven counties currently meet the metrics for some in-person instruction for K-3 students.

(Before case counts increased, as many as 20 counties were eligible to resume in-person instruction for K-3 students.)

According to the Oregon Department of Education, about 45,000 students currently receive at least some in-person instruction in Oregon schools.

Updating Oregon’s metrics without addressing the rising COVID-19 case rates in counties across the state, though, would leave most students in Oregon in comprehensive distance learning.

In order to return more students to classrooms across Oregon, the Healthy Schools Reopening Council identified three main areas of work:

  • Review of the metrics to return to in-person instruction to reflect the latest data and best practices learned from other states.
  • Ensure that school districts are prepared to effectively implement the Ready Schools, Safe Learners health and safety protocols for in-person instruction, so that students, educators, and staff are returning to safe learning environments.
  • Drive down community transmission of COVID-19, so that schools can reopen and stay open, to provide stability and certainty for students, parents, and educators.

The Healthy Schools Reopening Council also identified equity in comprehensive distance learning as a major concern, particularly for historically-underserved Oregon students who already faced systemic disparities in education.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated those existing disparities, with a disproportionate impact on Oregon’s Black, Indigenous, Latino/Latina/Latinx, and Tribal communities, and communities of color.

“Distance learning is exponentially more difficult for parents who can’t stay home, because they work in essential sectors like the service industry, construction, manufacturing, and agriculture,” Brown said. “Not every home in every county has reliable access to broadband or learning devices for all children. And, unfortunately, too many students do not have a stable place to call home. These are the kids who need in-person instruction the most. The kids for whom a smile in the classroom or a helping hand in the lunchroom means everything.”

In order to ensure all community voices are represented, the council includes state and local officials, public health experts, public members from a diverse range of backgrounds, and members from the education community, including representatives of students, parents, support staff, school administrators, school board members, teachers, counselors, and school nurses.

The full membership of the Healthy Schools Reopening Council is available here.

Central Oregon’s reps are Ardis Clark, a teacher with the Warm Springs K-8 Academy and Muriel DeLaVergne-Brown, the public health director in Crook County.

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