Gov. Kate Brown is ending the debate: Schools will reopen classrooms this academic year.
“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 in a letter to Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill and Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen.
Schools must offer some in-person instruction for grades K-5 by the week of March 29 and for grades 6-12 by the week of April 19, the governor announced Friday. Comprehensive distance learning will be an option only for individual student needs or if the county COVID-19 infection-rate metrics recommend it.
Brown has been hard pressed by both sides of the debate. Parent groups have protested around Oregon, demanding classrooms reopen. School districts have lobbied for lenient rules to allow greater in-person instruction, and the Senate Republicans’ education reform agenda announced last week included pressure to reopen classrooms.
At the same time, teacher unions in many districts have resisted reopening, expressing fears for a vulnerable workforce and the danger to students and families. Students, parents and school leaders have expressed concerns as well about the safety and logistics of in-person learning.
OSBA Board President Maureen Wolf said the association has supported school closures for public health. With the vaccine roll-out that prioritized school staff, it is time to reopen classrooms, especially for the youngest students, she said.
“Many districts across Oregon have shown that we can do this in a safe manner by administrators and school boards working with their local health officials and their communities,” said Wolf, the
Tigard-Tualatin School Board chair. “We need to get our young people back on track learning and address equity disparities worsened by the pandemic. And we need to continue progressing in restoring athletics and other activities that help students connect with friends and engage in school.”
Oregon has one of the lowest state COVID-19 infection rates, and case numbers have been falling in recent weeks. Only Curry County exceeded the metrics last week for returning elementary students to classrooms.
More than 40% of Oregon’s schools are providing some on-site or hybrid-model instruction to more than 160,00 students, according to ODE. Some schools are also offering limited in-person instruction for select groups not adequately served by distance learning, such as students with special learning needs or academically vulnerable students.
Data from around the world and in Oregon have shown little coronavirus spread within schools that follow safety protocols such as face coverings, physical distancing and hand washing.
When the school year started, most schools were forced into mandatory distance learning by county metrics. Brown loosened the metrics and made them advisory in January, unleashing hundreds of schools to offer in-person classes.
Brown said she will issue a new executive order and direct ODE and OHA to update guidances.
The current safety protocols in “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” still limit in-person instruction. The metrics are stricter for middle and high school, and some schools that would like to offer full on-site learning must stick to hybrid schedules because of physical distancing requirements and cohort limits.