Governor's order could upend Washington County school plans
In an about-face from her previous public position on reopening schools, Gov. Kate Brown said Friday, March 5, that K-12 school districts in Oregon must have elementary students back in schools by the last week of March and middle- and high-schoolers back by late April.
The new timeframe affects Washington County's largest school districts. While all had announced plans to have middle and high schools open again by the week of April 19, which comports with the executive order Brown announced Friday, local school districts had planned on phasing in elementary students a few grade levels at a time.
Brown said she is directing school districts to begin offering either full in-person instruction or so-called hybrid instruction, in which students attend in-person classes for part of the week and continue with distance learning for the rest of the week. They will need to offer some in-person learning open to all their students in kindergarten through the fifth grade no later than the week of March 29, expanding to middle and high school students by the week of April 19.
"Under this order, I'm so proud to say that by March 29 and April 19, kids all across Oregon will see the inside of their classrooms once again. Whether or not public schools should return kids to the classroom this spring is no longer up for discussion: the science and data is clear, schools can return to in-person instruction with a very low risk of COVID-19 transmission, particularly with a vaccinated workforce," Brown wrote in a March 5 letter to Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education, and Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority.
Under the timeframe Brown laid out Friday, it appears the Beaverton and Forest Grove school districts will have to move up their earliest return-to-school dates.
Those two districts planned for their youngest students — pre-kindergartners, kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders in Beaverton schools, pre-K through first grade in Forest Grove — to return the week of April 5. Older elementary school students, up to fifth grade, would come back the week of April 12.
Officials with the Beaverton and Forest Grove school districts said they are still assessing how the order will affect their plans.
Beaverton School District Superintendent Don Grotting said in a message to staff and families Friday afternoon that the district "is anticipating that there will be a mechanism that allows a district like ours to proceed with plans that are already in the works according to our current timeline," but that is not yet clear.
"For now, we need to sit tight and wait for more information," Grotting concluded.
The Hillsboro School District had already planned to resume in-person learning for pre-K through the second grade by the week of March 29, but it planned to not bring back third- and fourth-graders until the following week, and fifth-graders, as well as sixth-graders, by the week of April 12.
Beth Graser, spokesperson for the Hillsboro School District, told the Pamplin Media Group that district officials are "seeking clarification" as to whether Brown's order will require them to change Hillsboro's phasing plan.
Likewise, the Tigard-Tualatin School District was already planning for its youngest students, pre-K through first-graders, to come back the week of March 29. Its reopening plan calls for second- through fifth-graders to be welcomed back into classrooms the week of April 5, later than Brown's new deadline for those grade levels.
Superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith said the Tigard-Tualatin School District will receive more details of Brown's order by next Tuesday, March 9.
"Until then, TTSD continues to follow the plan as outlined for our community," she added.
The Banks and Sherwood school districts have already been planning an earlier return for students than Brown is directing. Sherwood's kindergartners and first-graders return to classrooms this coming Monday, March 8, as do Banks' kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders, followed by older elementary students the subsequent week.
Distance learning still available
Since shutting down K-12 schools last March and announcing in August that they would remain closed to start the 2020-21 school year, Brown has shifted her posture in recent weeks and months.
In December, Brown relaxed restrictions that had been preventing most Oregon schools from reopening.
At the time, the governor said school districts "should carefully consider the metrics in their local context, the needs of students and families, and readiness to implement health and safety protocols."
Teachers unions have pushed back against reopening plans, concerned about safety amidst the pandemic. Educators have been eligible to be vaccinated since Jan. 25 and many have been inoculated.
Brown said she supports the rights of employees to collectively bargain, and many teachers unions have worked with districts to come to an agreement on working conditions.
School districts shifted last March to offering "comprehensive distance learning," in which all course materials and lessons are taught remotely, either via live class sessions over platforms like Zoom or through pre-recorded videos and prepared coursework.
In Washington County, families can choose to continue with comprehensive distance learning for the rest of the 2020-21 school year, if they are unable or unwilling to send children back into classrooms this spring.
When they reopen buildings, school districts must follow more than 160 pandemic safety guidelines, currently. Students must have 6 feet of distance and 35 square feet of space each other in the classroom and contact with no more than 100 people per day in school.
But Brown said that the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education will issue new guidance for reopening schools by Friday, March 19.
Those rules mean the hybrid model is the only one available to most school districts, because schools don't have enough space to have everyone in buildings, and socially distanced, at the same time.
Remote learning will continue to be an option for families that do not want to send their students back to school buildings.
If community COVID-19 transmission rates surge to unacceptable levels, schools can revert to remote learning for all students, Brown said this week.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with more information and quotes from the superintendent of the Beaverton School District. Max Egener, Wade Evanson, Ray Pitz and Gabby Urenda contributed to this report.
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