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New coronavirus metrics raise ceiling for in-person instruction, keep decisions local
Looser “advisory” coronavirus metrics released Tuesday, Jan. 19, increase the possibility of in-person learning for thousands of students but leave the problems of safety protocols, community desires and teacher reluctance to local school boards.
The updated “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” includes an index of new resources and requirements, but it’s the changes to the metrics that will launch another whirlwind of schedule planning and tense school board meetings. The metrics allow elementary schools in most counties to open and create a path for the upper grades.
“Returning the decision-making to local school boards makes sense now that we have a better understanding of how the virus spreads and what schools can do to stop it,” said OSBA Executive Director Jim Green. “More decisions at the local level will help get our kids back to school as soon as possible.”
Beginning Jan. 1, Gov. Kate Brown made the guidance’s metrics “advisory,” handing over final decisions on in-person instruction to local health and school leaders. School boards and administrators have been working frantically since to come up with plans.
Reactions ranged from bringing back all grades as quickly as possible to phased returns starting with the lowest grades to commitments to stay in distance learning. Many districts opted to hold off specific planning until seeing this new guidance.
The new metrics recommend schools prioritize distance learning and limit in-person instruction for all grades when two-week case levels in larger counties exceed 350 cases per 100,000 or 90 total cases in medium to small counties. It also suggests a 10% test positivity rate threshold for medium and large counties. The new metrics table recommends middle and high schools use distance learning when cases go above 200 per 100,000 or 60 total in smaller counties unless the district has had success opening lowering grades.
If schools choose to operate outside their county metric recommendations, they must offer on-site testing and continue to offer distance learning for students who ask for it. Schools will also need to offer operational blueprints for re-entry, and there must be an employee representative on the planning team.
ODE has marked 164 specific requirements and said recommendations should be considered best practices or helpful information. Schools will still have to worry about lawsuits if someone gets sick, though.
“If schools don’t follow all the recommendations, they could still face liability issues,” Green said. “Schools will have to decide how much risk they are willing to assume while trying to do what’s best for their students.”
Everyone agrees that most students do better socially and academically with in-person learning, but school leaders must weigh the potentially deadly consequences for students, their families and staff members.
Lincoln High School junior Samantha Block is one of the students struggling with distance learning.
In the before times, the Portland teen was a good student. She earned mostly A’s, had good attendance and bonded with her teachers. But in December, Block was failing several classes and had been missing a lot of school. She is hopeful she can catch up before the term ends this month, but it’s difficult to focus.
Staring at a screen for hours leaves her feeling removed from teachers and friends, she said. School is so abnormal that she feels little pressure to perform, while the pandemic’s dangers are close and real.
“It’s a disconnect and ambivalence with an underlying sense of panic and stress,” Block said.
Portland Public Schools may start in-person instruction for some of the youngest students Jan. 25, but district leaders say they are limited by guidance rules calling for 35 square feet of space per student. Many classrooms simply aren’t big enough to hold all the students enrolled in them.
Although Block wants to return to school, she said she is worried Portland Public Schools’ safety measures won’t be sufficient.
“I’d rather not die and kill my family from COVID from going back to school and spreading a deadly pandemic,” she said.
Block said her concerns would be less if vaccines were widely available. There are no vaccines for people younger than 16.
Teachers have been placed at the head of the line of “Phase 1B” of Oregon vaccinations. If the federal government delivers the doses it has promised, roughly 100,000 school staff should start receiving vaccinations Jan. 25, according to Brown. With some exceptions, schools can require that staff receive the vaccine to return to work, according to OSBA guidance.
In some districts, teacher unions have pressed for waiting up to a week after all staff have had both rounds of the vaccine, which would take a minimum of a month.
School boards are under enormous pressure as their communities face the fear of COVID-19 and the tragedy of suffering students. Klamath County School District and Klamath Falls City Schools held a joint meeting Jan. 7 to discuss reopening.
Klamath County School Board Chair Steve Lowell said they received 238 emails in the two hours before the meeting, of which 218 were in favor of opening classrooms, including from students who said they were depressed from staying home. At the same time, a recent survey reported only 49% of the teachers wanted to come back. More than 500 people attended the Zoom meeting.
For Lowell, the unanimous board vote to start bringing back students Jan. 11 came down to the fact that more than a third of students were failing in the second quarter. Last year, it was 8%.
“We are not doing our job of educating students when you have that big of a difference between years and the kids are telling us,” he said.
The Coquille School District southeast of Coos Bay has also already started bringing back students, according to Superintendent Tim Sweeney.
Coquille had K-3 in classes all year, added grades 4-6 in December and grades 7 and 8 in hybrid schedules last week. Sweeney said small groups of high schoolers were starting this week. Sweeney said they would continue to provide hot spots for students not ready to come to school.
Sweeney said the district has had success preventing the spread of the disease and it is moving cautiously to avoid outbreaks and keep students in school. He got a little choked up when he described seeing excited children walking to school this month, some dressed in new school clothes they hadn’t had a chance to wear.
“I can’t foresee taking that away from kids again,” he said, especially after how hard district staff worked to create a re-opening plan. “We gave up winter break to have kids in school. That cannot be in vain.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA