Local leaders pen letter to Brown, ODE calling for early January return to school

By TED TAYLOR
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS

A group of local government and education officials has asked the state to “further prioritize in-person K-12 education” by reconsidering the current COVID metrics to allow elementary schools to reopen on January 4th.

In a letter to Gov. Kate Brown and Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill, the group calls on the state to mobilize resources over the next 30 days to come up with a “testing approach focused on testing/screening students, teachers and staff who choose to participate in in-person learning.”

“Kids from all backgrounds are suffering disproportionately from the lack of in-person education,” the letter reads. “But school closures are exacerbating the privilege gap, which is particularly concerning in communities like ours, where we struggle to serve our most vulnerable kids and families.”

The letter is signed by Bend Mayor Sally Russell and the rest of the current and newly-elected city councilors, Bend Rep. Cheri Helt, Bend Chamber CEO Katy Brooks, and Bend-La Pine School Board members including chairwoman Carrie Douglass.

In a news conference with city leaders Thursday, Russell said the letter is a call to the community to “recognize the value in following the guidelines.”

If everyone is vigilant over the next month, a return to school early in 2021 isn’t out of the question.

“When people do follow the guidelines, we can reduce the spread and the prevalence of this virus in our community,” she said.

In October, the state released new, much more relaxed COVID metrics that counties needed to meet to bring students back to class. 

But COVID cases in Central Oregon skyrocketed shortly after the announcement, putting an end to any hope students would be able to return to class before the end of the year.

“Our community, like most of Oregon, is encountering the darkest hour of the pandemic to date,” the letter states. “But there is no more important institution in our community than education. We see this as an opportunity to refocus on centralized proactive testing as a way forward out of the current phase of the pandemic.”

The letter calls for the state to:

  • Centralize and emphasize community testing of students, teachers, and staff at elementary schools, striving to match or exceed New York City Department of Education goals of testing 20% of students, teachers, and staff who choose to participate in in-person school on a monthly basis.
  • Open K-5 elementary schools on January 4, 2021, independent from county test positivity or county case rate, in consultation with public health authorities.
  • Allocate and advocate for funding to ensure schools are as safe as possible for children and safe workplaces for teachers and staff, including ensuring that schools have the funding necessary to reduce class sizes in order to meet spacing and other health and safety requirements and funding for solutions and measures for teachers and staff unable to work in the classroom.
  • Continue and strengthen, as needed, science-based restrictions and contact tracing on gatherings, businesses, and other sources of the spread of COVID-19 that have resulted in significant outbreaks.
  • Implement measures to ensure older children can return to school safely as soon as possible after January 4, 2021.
  • Prioritize opportunities for vaccination for teachers and staff as vaccines become available.

Charles Boyle, a spokesman for the governor, said most Oregon students will continue with distance learning while COVID cases continue to spike.

“The Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education are working with school leaders to determine how to expand effective testing and contact tracing plans to schools across Oregon; however this significant investment of time and resources won’t effectively impact school reopening for the vast majority of Oregon students if community spread is not brought down to manageable levels,” he said in a statement.

“No one disputes that getting kids back in classrooms will improve students’ educational outcomes, as well as their social and emotional well-being,” he said. “But if we want to reopen schools and keep them open, we have to bring COVID-19 case rates down to safer levels.”

The email to Brown from the Bend leaders includes a letter from Kate Broadman, a local pediatrician and the wife of city councilor-elect Anthony Broadman.

“I feel we have two options now as a state, if we truly believe in education as a right for all Oregon children. We must either set achievable metrics, in which schools are not held to a different metric than every other aspect of society (perhaps mirroring what Washington and California have done, with county case thresholds of 75 cases per 100,000 population per week in Washington, or 49 cases per 100,000 per week in California),” she wrote. “OR we must treat schools as a priority by closing nonessential services like bars and beauty salons until schools can open. Otherwise, we endanger the potential of an entire generation of children.”

Deschutes County is currently among 25 Oregon counties considered at “Extreme Risk” for the virus spread as cases here reach record highs.

Through at least Dec. 17th, gyms must close, grocery stores must operate at 50% capacity and restaurants and bars are restricted to take-out only or outdoor dining at 50% capacity.

COVID cases in the county have jumped from 74 per week in late October to 459 last week.

You can read the full letter below:

12 2 20 School Testing and opening ODE Letter FINAL
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