By TED TAYLOR
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS
More than a year after COVID concerns forced Gov. Kate Brown to close Oregon schools, she’s ordering a return to the classroom for kids across the state.
“Whether or not public schools should return kids to the classroom this spring is no longer up for discussion: the science and data is clear, schools can return to in-person instruction with a very low risk of COVID-19 transmission, particularly with a vaccinated workforce,” Brown wrote Friday in a letter to the Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority.
Elementary students will return to full in-person or hybrid instruction by March 29th; middle and high schoolers will return by April 19th.
The order, however, likely won’t have much impact on schools locally as most are already operating with an in-person or hybrid model.
And Deschutes County’s bi-weekly case rates per 100,000 residents are still about double what is required for a full return to in-person instruction for all students.
Sheila Miller, the public information officer for the Redmond School District, said the state’s guidance on student space requirements and cohort sizes will keep middle and high schoolers in a hybrid model for the foreseeable future.
“Our hands are tied until those are changed,” she said, pointing out the governor has asked the ODE to revisit those guidelines in the coming weeks.
Brown said all but six Oregon counties meet or exceed the state’s advisory metrics for returning to in-person or hybrid learning for all grade levels. And five of those counties meet the metrics for a return for elementary students.
The governor closed Oregon’s schools on March 16, 2020, as the coronavirus started to take hold across Oregon and the country.
Initially, Brown asked schools to close for just two weeks, forcing districts to come up with last-minute distance learning plans.
But in early April she announced Oregon’s 625,000 public school kids would finish the year online and wouldn’t return to class.
Districts hoped to return in the fall as new, more relaxed metrics were released.
But in some areas, teachers’ unions balked at a return before teachers were vaccinated.
And localized COVID spikes (which turned out to be nothing like the spike Oregon experienced in late November) ended hopes for a widespread return. By the start of 2021, many Oregon schools started phasing students back into classrooms.
Crook County actually was able to bring elementary students back in September; middle and high schoolers returned in late January.
Bend-La Pine students started to return in mid-January; Redmond School District students returned in late February.
Today, statewide, 160,000 students have returned to some type of in-person instruction.
“Closing schools in Oregon is a decision I will never forget. Parents, educators, school staff, but especially students have come so far while navigating the challenges of this pandemic,” Brown said. “Welcoming students back to every school across Oregon will be a milestone worth celebrating.”
The state and local teachers’ unions issued a joint statement supporting the spring return to class.
“From the beginning of this pandemic, Oregon educators have made it clear that they support getting students back into the classroom once it can be done safely,” the letter states. “To that end, educators throughout the state have worked tirelessly with local school districts to create in-person instruction plans that will meet the unique needs of their communities while keeping students, families and educators safe.”
Brown’s order doesn’t require families to send their kids to class.
Anyone who wants to continue with comprehensive distance learning is allowed to do so.
And school districts need to be prepared to return to online learning if COVID rates in their community suddenly jump again.
“My gratitude goes out to OHA and ODE and every district, administrator, teacher, staff member, and parent for their work this past year,” Brown wrote. “Our kids are our future and we need to do everything we can to make up for the losses of 2020.”
You can read Brown’s full letter to the ODE and OHA below:03.05.21__Governro Brown Schools Letter_final