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School board chair helps guide Oregon’s coronavirus response
As the director of the Oregon Health Authority, Sherwood School Board Chair Pat Allen has been at the heart of school closure discussions.
The Oregon Health Authority is an umbrella state agency that normally helps coordinate purchasing and policymaking for public health care. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the agency’s resources were shifted to its Public Health Division.
“In the first couple of weeks of March, the entire health agency really kind of went to war against COVID,” Allen said. “It really doesn’t matter what your day job is, today you are working on COVID.”
Allen was in constant contact with Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Colt Gill as the Oregon Department of Education tried to navigate this health threat to students and educators.
Allen was working 18- to 20-hour days in the early going. He recalls receiving a text message from Gill as late as 2 a.m. and getting the next one at 5 a.m.
Gill said Allen was often his last call of the night and his first call of the morning.
“Pat has an unmatched capacity for bringing all the stakeholders together to combat COVID-19,” Gill said. “That includes understanding and responding to the needs and concerns of the education community.”
Allen has a degree in economics and has been in public service for 25 years. He said his school board background influenced the discussion about closing schools. He intimately understands the roles schools play beyond just academics, providing support and services for low-income and underserved communities.
When asked about the decision to close his own schools, Allen choked up.
“My heart just hurts,” he said.
Allen and his wife, Joan, have three children who were in Sherwood schools when he started on the school board: Caitlin, 25; Sean, 22 and Megan, 20. Allen says he joined the school board because he believes in an obligation to give back to the community and public schools are such an integral part of the community.
Allen recently discussed his unique view of the intersection of health and education. His answers have been edited for clarity.
Is the community hurt when schools are closed?
While the school is physically closed, it’s still there. We launched our online learning and the school has maintained a presence day in and day out in people’s lives. … Even when you can’t physically go there, they are still there, and they are still a part of the community.
In the early days of this, there was an insistence the schools needed to stay open. Why did that change?
The health authority, the governor, society at large’s willingness to take steps changed day by day as this crisis developed. Early on, people were willing to talk about should we close schools or not kind of in isolation from other things. What our epidemiologists told me was that school closures, if you just go through them by themselves, aren’t super effective, especially since this particular disease does not seem to affect young children seriously. … In their advice to me, they were really actively balancing those various roles that schools play and their suggestion was that if all we were thinking about was closing schools, then on balance that’s not so useful. As we began to get to the place where we got sort of a much more generalized shutdown, then the school issue changed. It was a component of a broader strategy and more likely to be effective. Another fact was that in the heat of the moment, parents and teachers and school board members were kind of voting with their feet and saying, “I’m scared and whatever the advice is we’re going to keep our kids home for now and see what happens.” Those kinds of things came together to change the discussion hour by hour.
What would be the key indicator that school doors can be reopened for summer school or next fall?
The major indicator we are looking for is a sustained decrease in the presence of COVID. … We would need the ability to test large numbers of people. … And a third thing is resources, including people at the local level, usually working with hospitals or local public health, to do all that contact tracing and communication with people, assuring that (infected) people are staying quarantined. If you can get those three things together, you can then begin to slowly think about elements of reopening.
How do you feel about doing budget negotiations by virtual board meeting?
The virtuality is not the thing that has me worried. It’s the state of the state budget that has me worried. We were really on the edge of doing some incredible things with the Student Success Act and all the new resources we were going to get. … Now not only is all that up in the air, I worry about just even the core investments based on going into a state biennium with unemployment looking like it’s going to look.
What question do school boards want answered?
I don’t know that this is particular to school board members but … did we really need to do this? Was this overblown or an overreaction? I would say as the director of the Oregon Health Authority and as a school board member this is a step I never would have recommended if I didn’t think literally hundreds, if not thousands, of lives in Oregon were at stake. Yes, we needed to do this, and yes, it’s working. People shouldn’t take the fact it’s working as evidence that we should simply stand down and put things back the way they were.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA