Region’s school leaders call on Brown for return to full, in-person learning

By TED TAYLOR
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS

Central Oregon school district superintendents have sent a letter to Gov. Kate Brown urging her to make some change to current COVID restrictions so all the region’s students can return to full-time, in-person instruction.

Specifically, the superintendents want to reduce the physical distancing requirements to align with the World Health Organization, eliminate the 35-square-feet per person requirements for room capacity and expand the 100-person limit for individual school contact.

“It is clear from the Governor’s executive order issued Friday that she too sees the urgency in returning Oregon’s students to in-person learning,” the superintendents wrote. “However, for those of us who have been forced to create hybrid schedules due to the requirements addressed above, we know that while better than CDL, these schedules severely limit students’ learning and create stress for our staffs.”

Central Oregon’s school districts have been back to some form of in-person learning for a few months, but in few cases are all students back full time.

In Bend-La Pine, middle and high schoolers are only in class, in person a couple of days a week.

Brown last week ordered that all schools in Oregon must offer at least hybrid in-person instruction by April 19th.

But the continued restrictions that are part of the state’s Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance has restricted districts from expanding the in-person option.

“As a region, we have been committed since this summer to returning our students to the classroom. Our schools have proven to be safe for students and staff; our staff have been vaccinated; and we have provided alternatives for students and families who cannot return,” the letter states. “We urge you to visit our schools to see both our successes in following RSSL requirements and our challenges in the absence of changes.”

Superintendents from the Bend-La Pine, Redmond, Culver, Crook County, Sisters and Jefferson County school districts and the head of the High Desert Education Service District signed the letter to Brown and Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education.

In all, the group represents more than 32,000 students.

They are asking:

1. Reduce the physical distancing requirement from 6 feet to 3 feet, or 1 meter, to align with the World Health Organization’s recommendation in its December, 2020, checklist for reopening schools (the capacity to maintain a distance of at least 1 metre: a) outside classrooms for both students [all age groups] and staff; and b) inside classrooms, based on age considerations and local COVID-19 transmission intensity).

2. Aligned with the first proposed change, eliminate the 35 square feet per person requirement for determining room capacity. Instead, use the 3 feet of physical distancing requirement to maintain appropriate spacing.

3. Expand the 100-person limit for individual student contact to 200. Our districts have found that with safety protocols such as masking, cleaning, handwashing, and distancing in place for our middle and high school students, we have not needed to quarantine large groups of students based on school exposures.

There’s some health data to back up the request as COVID cases across the region are falling.

On Friday, Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties all will move down to lower levels of the state’s COVID risk levels.

Crook County moves to the ‘lower’ risk (the lowest possible) while Deschutes move to ‘moderate’ and Jefferson County moves from ‘extreme’ to ‘high.’

In Deschutes County, cases have been declining for seven weeks and weekly numbers are at the lowest point since before November.

“Finally, just as Governor Brown’s executive order carries far greater weight than her previous recommendations, we ask that the RSSL requirements change, rather than becoming advisory,” they wrote. “Our districts have worked closely with our associations to bring students back to our schools, and many of us have commitments to follow the requirements in this document. We believe these changes reflect international studies and current science, and we believe they are appropriate in a landscape where more individuals are vaccinated daily.”

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