Amid growing evidence that reopening schools may not be as risky for the spread of the coronavirus as was initially feared, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and a new council she appointed has begun reviewing the steps needed to return more students to in-person instruction.
“Returning to in-person instruction safely is key to ensuring Oregon’s students are receiving a high-quality education that prepares them for lifelong success,” Brown said.
As important as it is, education is not all that schools provide much more to the communities and families they serve, the governor acknowledged.
“Our schools provide warm and nutritious meals to students who are hungry,” she said. “They are health centers. They provide for students’ mental health and well-being.
“And, at the center of it all, are the teachers, nurses, counselors, librarians, and support professionals who, every day, build the personal, individual connections with students that are so crucial to their lifelong success.”
While officials and groups — like “Clack to School,” formed by local parents — have increasingly pushed for an approach to reopening schools safely that takes another look at Oregon’s stringent reopening standards and whether they really make sense, the state is grappling with one of its largest surges in new cases since the pandemic began.
As of this week, only two counties meet Oregon’s current metrics for in-person instruction for all grades, however, Oregon as a whole is exceeding the statewide 5% positivity rate maximum allowed for schools to move forward with reopening.
Seven counties currently meet the metrics for some in-person instruction for K-3 students. (Before case counts increased, as many as 20 counties were eligible to resume in-person instruction for K-3 students.)
According to the Oregon Department of Education, approximately 45,000 students currently receive at least some in-person instruction in Oregon schools.
Updating Oregon’s metrics without addressing the rising Covid-19 case rates in counties across the state, though, would leave most students in Oregon in comprehensive distance learning, according to the governor’s office.
Brown and her Healthy Schools Reopening Council have identified three main areas of work to return more students to classrooms across Oregon: review the metrics to reflect the latest data and best practices learned from other states, ensure school districts are prepared to effectively implement the health and safety protocols for in-person instruction, and help drive down community transmission of Covid-19.
“In order to get our kids back into the classroom, we need concerted, community-wide efforts to drive down Covid-19 case rates — by wearing face coverings, watching our physical distance, washing our hands, and forgoing large social gatherings,” said Governor Brown.
“It’s on all of us to work together to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, so we can open schools and keep them open safely.”
The Healthy Schools Reopening Council also identified equity in comprehensive distance learning as a major concern, particularly for historically-underserved Oregon students who already faced systemic disparities in education.
The pandemic has exacerbated those existing disparities, with a disproportionate impact on Oregon’s Black, Indigenous, Latino/Latina/Latinx, and Tribal communities, and communities of color.
“Distance learning is exponentially more difficult for parents who can’t stay home, because they work in essential sectors like the service industry, construction, manufacturing, and agriculture,” Brown said. “Not every home in every county has reliable access to broadband or learning devices for all children.
“And, unfortunately, too many students do not have a stable place to call home. These are the kids who need in-person instruction the most. The kids for whom a smile in the classroom or a helping hand in the lunchroom means everything.”
The Healthy Schools Reopening Council is charged with advising the Governor and the Oregon Department of Education as school districts develop and implement their plans for a safe return to school for Oregon’s students under the Ready Schools, Safe Learners K-12 schools reopening process.
The council includes state and local officials, public health experts, public members from a diverse range of backgrounds, and members from the education community, including representatives of students, parents, support staff, school administrators, school board members, teachers, counselors, and school nurses.
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