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Metrics governing in-person education are now considered advisory, not mandated

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Metrics governing in-person education are now considered advisory, not mandated.

Gov. Kate Brown abruptly announced new rules for school reopenings the day before Christmas Eve, making former directives optional and allowing districts to open if they follow safety precautions.

In a letter to health and education agencies, she said, "Effective Jan. 1, 2021, Oregon's COVID-19 Health Metrics for Returning to In-Person Instruction will become advisory rather than mandatory. Moving forward, the decision to resume in-person instruction must be made locally, district by district school by school."

But the announcement does not mean schoolhouse doors will be thrown open to all students right away. Districts must plan for students to come back and only a few groups of students will likely be sitting in classrooms for the first months of opening.

Schools still have to follow safety guidelines: For example, providing 35 square feet of space for each child in classrooms and 6 feet of social distancing throughout the day. That distancing is challenging on a school bus.

Other challenges include access to the coronavirus vaccines that either have arrived or are awaiting federal approval.

Portland Public Schools said getting teachers, bus drivers and other school employees vaccinated is key to reopening.

"We need to have educators and school staff to have access to vaccinations before we reopen," said David Roy, district senior director for communications.

The state announced Tuesday, Dec. 22, that school employees will be next up to get vaccinations, following health care workers, along with staff and residents at nursing homes.

In an effort to tamp down the COVID-19 pandemic, most Oregon schools have been closed since mid-March and students have been learning remotely in their homes. Many parents and students had become increasingly frustrated with the situation and their calls for reopening schools had become more strident as the months wore on.

The situation was complicated by resistance from some teachers unions. Some teachers are at high risk for COVID-19 or have high-risk people in their households and did not want to take chances of being exposed to the virus.

While many school districts will face challenges, Crook County School District will likely experience little difficulty in adjusting to the recent changes. With the exception of one week, K-3 students have attended school full time since the start of the 2020-21 school year, and grades 4 and 5 have been learning in classrooms full time since early October. Middle and high school students have not attended school full time, but they have been separated into two cohorts at each facility and attend classes twice a week on an alternating schedule.

The one week that schools closed to distance learning – the week before winter break began – was due to a teacher shortage caused by contract tracing and quarantine requirements. No outbreaks have occurred at any of the schools.

Crook County School District was granted a Safe Harbor designation early in the school year because of the relatively low number of cases the community has experienced. Under the designation, school closures would be determined by local health officials instead of state metrics.

That designation was set to expire on Jan. 4, but the Department of Education recently reached out to district leaders asking if they would like an extension. That extension was later granted to all school districts under the Safe Harbor designation, meaning students could return to in-person education after the winter break.

The governor said the goal of the recently announced policy is "putting more school districts on track to return students to in-person instruction, especially elementary students, by Feb. 15." But the decision and its timing was not universally welcomed. The Oregon Education Association immediately issued a statement slamming Brown's announcement.

"Today's decision by Gov. Brown will only result in an increasingly disparate patchwork of return plans throughout the state's public education system — creating uncertainty in a moment when clarity has never been more crucial," Oregon Education Association President John Larson stated.

OEA went on to denounce the timing of the announcement and accused government of "continually moving the goalposts in our fight" against COVID-19.

"Gov. Brown's decision to make this announcement in the middle of the holiday season means that the nearly 70,000 educators employed in Oregon's K-12 public schools and the families of the more than 580,000 students who are educated in them will now spend their holidays trying to understand what these changes mean for their lives and their livelihoods," the teachers union stated.

Brown said that state and federal funds going to schools to pay for safety equipment and other costs make the reopening possible. She also said the state will work with schools to "provide on-site rapid testing."

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