By TED TAYLOR
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS
Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday directed state health and education leaders to launch several new policies in the coming weeks hoping to get Oregon’s elementary school students back in class by the middle of February.
Among the requests is making the state’s current health metrics for a return to class “advisory” rather than “mandatory” beginning January 1st.
“Moving forward, the decision to resume in-person instruction must be made locally, district by district, school by school,” Brown wrote in her letter to Oregon Education Director Colt Gill and Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen.
Most Oregon students have been out of the classroom since early March when the COVID pandemic started to take hold across the United States.
Since then, school districts have grappled with distance learning efforts with varying success while parents juggled schedules and students missed out on important face-to-face interactions with teachers and friends.
“Moving forward, the decision to resume in-person instruction must be made locally, district by district, school by school.”
Gov. Kate Brown
The state dangled a carrot in front of parents this fall by releasing more lenient health metrics, but cases in Deschutes County spiked right after the announcement.
The governor now wants Oregon school districts and counties to have the flexibility to reopen schools based on the COVID situation in their own backyard.
“In addition to schools continuing to adhere to required health and safety protocols and working in close consultation with their local public health authority in understanding and considering the metrics, teachers, school staff, parents and students should be engaged in this decision-making process to allow schools to make the best choice for their community and their students,” she said.
“Today’s announcement from Governor Brown will not help return students safely to Oregon’s classrooms – it will simply continue what has already been months of confusion and uncertainty for Oregon’s students and educators.”
– Oregon Education Association President John Larson
Redmond School District Superintendent Dr. Charan Cline welcomed Brown’s announcement.
“The Redmond School District is eager to have kids back in school as soon as it is safe to do so, and we know that studies are showing transmission of COVID-19 is rare in schools,” he said. “With Governor Brown’s revision of the public health metrics to advisory instead of mandatory, we now have the ability to start a path toward reopening our schools.”
And in a letter to parents late Wednesday, Bend-La Pine Interim Superintendent Lora Nordquist said they’ve been planning for in-person instruction for months.
“I started connecting with district and association leaders this afternoon and will continue to expand the conversation to others over the break, as we determine specific dates for our phased-in return, based on this new information,” she said.
But the state’s teacher’s union was less than thrilled with the timing of Brown’s announcement during the holidays, saying it will “only result in an increasingly disparate patchwork of return plans throughout the state’s public education system.”
President John Larson said 70,000 educators and the families of 580,000 students “now must spend the holidays trying to understand what these changes mean for their lives and livelihoods.”
“Today’s announcement from Governor Brown will not help return students safely to Oregon’s classrooms – it will simply continue what has already been months of confusion and uncertainty for Oregon’s students and educators,” he said.
Brown said the nearly $140 million in state and federal resources dedicated to school reopening “put this goal within reach for school districts if communities continue to work together to stop the spread of COVID-19 over the next several weeks.”
She shared some good news on Tuesday, sharing that the post-Thanksgiving spike many had feared did not materialize.
Local cases, although higher than they have been since the pandemic began, are once again starting to decline.
In a statement, Brown said both the Legislature and Congress have dedicated new resources for safe school reopenings in 2021, including an additional $50 million approved during Monday’s special session to support schools in the transition to in-person instruction.
In addition, the legislature also passed legislation during the special session that protects schools from COVID-related lawsuits.
“As 2021 approaches and we look to the remaining school year just over the horizon, it is clear that the greatest gift we can give to Oregon’s children this holiday season is to redouble our efforts to act responsibly and reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our communities,” Brown said. “Our students’ learning, resilience, and future well-being depend on all of us.”
On Wednesday Brown said Oregon educators and child care providers would be prioritized in the next wave of COVID vaccines.
In her letter to the ODE and OHA, she directed the agencies to work with schools to “provide on-site, rapid testing as a safeguard to quickly address symptomatic individuals and those with potential exposure to COVID-19.”
Brown pointed to Washington state where “advisory metrics” have allowed more schools to reopen.
“As our neighbors to the north have demonstrated, this does not mean schools can resume in-person instruction without regard for COVID-19 spread in the community, but instead should carefully consider the metrics in their local context, the needs of students and families, and readiness to implement health and safety protocols,” she said. “As we move into a new year, we must all rise to the challenges that COVID-19 presents and prioritizing our children is most urgent.”
You can read Brown’s full letter to the ODE and OHA below.