Brown, seeking more in-person instruction, drops coronavirus metrics requirement
Wednesday, December 23, 2020
Gov. Kate Brown wants more in-person instruction by Feb. 15, and she is letting local officials make the call.
The governor sent a news release Wednesday announcing the coronavirus metrics will be advisory, not mandatory, as of Jan. 1.
The letter directs state agencies to partner with schools to increase in-person instruction and for the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority to update guidances by Jan. 19.
“Our school boards welcome the opportunity to reopen schools safely for our students, staff and communities,” said Jim Green, OSBA executive director. “This next step will require close coordination with local health authorities. Above all we want to minimize risks as we return to in-person instruction.”
The metrics in “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” set four case rate thresholds for in-person instruction that depend on a county’s population. As of Monday, 28 counties were in distance-learning only.
The governor’s change would give discretion to local health and education officials to decide the right instruction method for their communities. Some school boards have argued that although their county numbers may be high, they have had few cases nearby.
Medford School Board Chair Jeff Kinsella said the governor’s letter is great news but it will put school boards under tremendous pressure to open. Earlier this month, the Medford board sent a letter to Brown asking her to loosen metrics and allow local leaders more say.
“We will follow science, period,” Kinsella said.
In a letter to superintendents Wednesday, ODE Director Colt Gill asked schools to move carefully.
“I urge you to make sure your local decision-making process accounts for the fact that updated advisory Health Metrics for Returning to In-Person Instruction may be published later in January,” he wrote.
School officials will have to weigh the needs of their students against the dangers of infection in their area.
School leaders have argued for more instruction, especially for student groups who would benefit the most from in-person instruction, including younger learners, students in special education, English language learners, students without adequate internet connectivity, and students who are falling behind.
The Legislature passed COVID-19 liability protection Monday, which will give schools more reassurance to reopen. Schools that follow the state’s health and safety protocols will have some protection from lawsuits during Oregon’s state of emergency.
Passions for and against in-person instruction are high. Everyone agrees most students learn better in a classroom, but some question whether it is worth the health risk not only to students but also to families and staff.
Students and families have associated increased mental health concerns, inadequate learning, inequitable opportunities and family child care stress with distance learning. On the other hand, students and families are concerned about students or their loved ones becoming sick if students associate too closely, too long and without masks. Studies have shown little increased COVID-19 spread associated with school openings that follow safety protocols.
District leaders must also work with teachers unions. Many teachers are insistent about the need to be face to face with their students, but many teachers are also in the highest risk groups for COVID-19 and fear for their health. Some districts have already faced contract negotiations over in-person instruction working conditions and other coronavirus protocols.
Schools that offer more in-person instruction could face a shortage of teachers. Schools around the state have had to shut down or move to distance learning because of teachers out sick or quarantined, with too few substitutes to replace them.
Brown said teachers should be among the essential workers vaccinated after health care workers, but they won’t be required to be vaccinated. Health authorities don’t know when those shots might be available, either.