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The school district says it can't safely restore in-person classroom instruction for middle and high schoolers.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Eighth-grade students at Stoller Middle School eat lunch in a packed cafeteria in 2014. Throwing cold water on Gov. Kate Brown's publicly declared hopes to have Oregon students back on campus by mid-February, the Beaverton School District announced Friday, Jan. 8, that in-person instruction for its older students "remains impossible."

The district said it can't bring back middle and high school-level students while adhering to safety protocols meant to prevent transmission of the coronavirus.

"Because middle and high school students have several classes and are exposed to more students, in-person instruction under current required safety protocols remains impossible," the district stated Friday morning.

The school district expressed more openness to bringing prekindergarten- and elementary-age students back into classrooms, but it stopped short of committing to it or saying when it might could happen.

"While not finalized, current hybrid plans have students who elect to come back to school being assigned to either mornings or afternoons (total in-school time: 2½ hours) on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. When not at school, these students would be learning online," the district said.

The district described its outlook at every level as "current thinking" and emphasized that its plans are not final.

The Oregon Department of Education has said pre-K, kindergarten, and the first and second grades should be considered the top priority for a return to in-person instruction, as the Beaverton School District noted in its statement.

Brown said Dec. 23 that she wanted schools to be able to return to in-person instruction by Feb. 15. That's not a mandate, however. Brown said decisions should be made at the local level.

"As we move into a new year, we must all rise to the challenges that COVID-19 presents and prioritizing our children is most urgent," Brown said in a statement at the time.

Some school districts have embraced the goal of reopening campuses and bringing students back into classrooms quickly. Others have been cautious.

On Thursday, Jan. 7, teachers' unions at Oregon's five largest school districts — including Beaverton, which serves more than 40,000 students in Washington County — sent a letter to Brown asking her to ensure vaccines are available to protect educators from COVID-19 by the time schools reopen for in-person learning.

"The best of what public schools do cannot be replicated through a video call," the letter, also signed by union leaders in Portland, Hillsboro, Salem-Keizer and Eugene's public school districts, acknowledged. "However, this urgent need to create stability and connection for students does not erase the reality that COVID-19 is still spreading in our community, and people's lives are still at risk anytime we gather."

The letter criticized Brown's Dec. 23 announcement easing restrictions to make it easier for schools to reopen as "arbitrary" and "short-sighted."

"The fact that Oregon's case numbers have remained lower than those of much of the country is a testament to the efficacy of the policies that have been in place — it is short-sighted and dangerous to use the success of these policies as justification for pulling the legs out from under them just as the vaccine is beginning to be distributed," the union leaders warned.

The Beaverton School District said it expects to be able to provide more specifics on hybrid learning and other aspects of its plan for the rest of the 2020-21 school year after Jan. 19, when state agencies have said they will release new guidance and possibly change the metrics with which school districts must comply.

The district left the door open Friday to the idea it could facilitate or host small groups of middle and high school-age students for activities and projects.

"We know that our secondary students are desperately missing social interaction," the district said, suggesting it "may be able to bring students in for AVID, clubs, community service, specific course activities and specific social activities."

As for school sports, Beaverton said it will follow the lead of the Oregon School Activities Association. The OSAA has set a goal of playing fall, winter and spring sports in the first half of 2021, albeit on compressed schedules.

The district also said it's negotiating with the Beaverton Education Association, its local teachers' union, about "changes in working conditions," a reference to the possibility that teachers may be asked to come back to their classrooms instead of continuing to teach remotely.

"Finalized plans are subject to the agreements made in those negotiations," the district added.

While some Beaverton school families are wary of sending students back to school, others are anxious to do so, as the school district acknowledged Friday.

"At the end of day, no solution will be perfect," it said. "We're simply trying to do what's in the best interest of our children in vastly imperfect times — both in terms of their education and their safety and the safety of our staff."

By Mark Miller
Editor-in-Chief, Washington and Columbia counties
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