Gov. Kate Brown announced Wednesday that Oregon schools will be allowed to open their doors to students from Jan. 1, as the state will no longer require closure based on the severity of the coronavirus pandemic in a school district county.
Realistically, schools probably don’t open that fast. It will likely take weeks for district officials to decide whether to reopen their schools and, if so, how to prepare.
The governor’s office warned school districts to be wise.
“Let me be clear: like any government entity or responsible employer, schools or school districts must remember the obligations and risks that a major pandemic imposes on them,” said spokesman Charles Boyle.
The governor said her hope is that “more” Oregon schools will resume teaching on the site by Feb. 15, especially elementary schools.
Although not bound by state surveys, school districts must continue to follow Oregon’s safety guidelines, Boyle said.
Still, Brown’s announcement signaled even more strongly the state’s focus on getting children back in schools after close to the heels of her Tuesday request that health officials prioritize teachers and education-related workers for the next round of vaccinations.
“As we move into a new year, we must all take on the challenges that COVID-19 presents, and it is most urgent to prioritize our children,” Brown said.
The policy change is nothing short of seismic, nine months after Brown first prevented Oregon’s 580,000 K-12 students from attending classes in person. The state first suspended polls in July to determine which schools could be reopened, and bound districts to coronavirus cases and positive test rates in their counties.
Now, Oregon’s 197 school districts and more than 1,200 schools will have to make the call themselves. While state case and speed measurements were a relatively sharp and dry approach, local officials will have to juggle a much more complicated formula – and a wider range of opinions – when deciding whether to reopen their schools.
Given that Oregon is updating the school’s safety requirements on Jan. 19, the governor’s office suggested that districts wait until then to make a decision. And those decisions should not be taken lightly, the governor’s office said.
“It is incredibly important that school districts participate in a rigorous local process around local reopening decisions to ensure they make the right decisions for their community,” Boyle said.
Teachers have generally been ready to reopen schools too quickly. Only 14% of Portland Public Schools educators said they enjoyed teaching in person, according to a teachers’ association survey. And in a particularly striking expression of discontent, Douglas High School staff stepped up en masse in October when district officials reopened the school despite the teacher’s concern about coronavirus.
Oregon is one of only 12 states with full or partial school closure, according to research compiled by Education Week. Now Oregon joins most of the rest of the country, which tends to allow local officials to decide when to open schools. Only four states have ordered schools to reopen.
Brown said she wants almost everyone to be involved in these decisions, from school boards and superintendents to teachers, parents and students. She asked the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education to help ensure these decisions are consistent with sound science.
The Oregon School Boards Association sounded a hopeful but practical note in response.
“Our school boards welcome the opportunity to reopen schools safely for our students, staff and community,” said CEO Jim Green. “This next step requires close coordination with local health authorities. Above all, we will minimize risks when we return to personal instruction. ”
Some Oregon parents have demanded that schools reopen, citing the damage that distance education can inflict on their children’s mental health, academic performance, and motivation.
The ripple effects of distance learning have been felt everywhere. Some parents have to juggle working from home while trying to keep their children in chairs and in front of their computer. Others have important jobs that do not allow teleworking. And once again, trust schools to provide their children with at least one healthy meal a day.
This story will be updated.
– Staff writer Eder Campuzano contributed to this report.
– Fedor Zarkhin | [email protected] | 503-294-7674