By TED TAYLOR
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS
Despite calls from the White House for the nation’s schools to fully open this fall, Oregon’s education leader on Wednesday affirmed the ultimate decision on a return to classrooms will be made locally.
Colt Gill said the department is working with school districts to implement and update the Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidelines handed down last month.
The 46-page document provides a checklist for schools, including guidelines on masks, social distancing and sanitization.
“This guidance, developed under the direction of Governor Brown and in collaboration with Oregon Health Authority, provides a framework for schools for the 2020-21 school year that ensures the health and safety of all students and staff and the families they return to each day,” he told Central Oregon Daily News.
“We understand and honor the importance of local voice, leadership and control,” he said. “These individual plans will reflect the distinct strengths and needs of each district and community.”
The reopening of schools took center stage this week after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday blasted plans by some school districts to offer in-person instruction only a few days a week, saying schools must be “fully operational” this fall.
Later Tuesday, President Trump echoed those remarks saying he would pressure governors to fully reopen schools. On Wednesday the president threatened to withhold federal funding if schools didn’t open.
Oregon schools are busy this summer creating their own blueprints for a safe return to schools.
The Bend-La Pine and Redmond school districts have released preliminary plans that call for a return to the classrooms for elementary students but a hybrid in-class/online experience for middle and high school students.
Both districts have said that option would include staggering attendance for older students.
All students have the option for a full online experience if their parents don’t feel comfortable sending them back to the classroom.
Crook County hasn’t released a formal plan yet, but Superintendent Sarah Johnson said the plan is to return to a normal schedule on September 7th.
“We understand and honor the importance of local voice, leadership and control. These individual plans will reflect the distinct strengths and needs of each district and community.”
– Colt Gill, Director, Oregon Dept. of Education
The CDC has also issued a call to return to the classroom, recommending students and teachers wear masks whenever feasible, spread out desks, stagger schedules, eat meals in classrooms instead of the cafeteria, and add physical barriers between bathroom sinks.
Many of those requirements are part of the ODE guidelines.
Trump, however, said the guidelines would be “tough and expensive,” an argument local state leaders have made about Oregon’s plan.
Bend Rep. Cheri Helt, a 10-year member of the Bend-La Pine school board, said in June she believed the guidelines were too excessive and hoped for a full return to class.
But on Wednesday, the Republican told Central Oregon Daily News “one-size-fits-all policies and threats from the Trump Administration about how to safely educate our kids are not welcomed or needed here.”
“Oregonians – parents, teachers and district staff, school boards, elected officials, and local public health – will work together to decide the right approach for our kids to safely return to school,” she said.
Gov. Kate Brown didn’t directly respond to the talk coming from Washington, D.C. but said COVID and Oregonians themselves hold the key to whether school returns to normal this year.
“One-size-fits-all policies and threats from the Trump Administration about how to safely educate our kids are not welcomed or needed here.”
– Rep. Cheri Helt (R-Bend)
“If we continue to see COVID-19 case counts, community spread, and hospitalizations rise, districts across the state will be forced to resort to extended periods of remote instruction throughout the school year,” Brown said Tuesday during the first remote meeting of her Healthy Schools Reopening Council.
Brown said July will be a turning point in the outbreak and urged Oregonians to wear face coverings, follow social distance rules, and avoid large gatherings.
“Or we could quickly find that a safe return to the classroom is beyond our reach,” she said.
Gill agreed, saying reopening schools will take everyone’s cooperation.
“It is our shared responsibility to keep all our community members safe by following public health guidance related to physical distancing, face coverings, and hygiene,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.