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Students will continue distance learning through March 26 as staff await vaccinations

COURTESY PHOTO: KELLY SIKKEMA FOR UNSPLASH - Reynolds students wont be back in school buildings until after March 26, at the earliest.

Reynolds School District will keep its buildings closed to students at least through March 26, the end of spring break, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage.

In a letter to parents, superintendent Danna Diaz said, "I understand that remaining in Comprehensive Distance Learning through Spring Break may not be welcome news to everyone in our community.  There are no easy decisions when weighing the benefits of in-person instruction with the risks of serious illness or death from COVID-19."

The Reynolds School Board discussed the recommendation at a meeting Wednesday, Jan. 13, and backed the decision, although no vote was taken. The board is scheduled to vote on the plan at its Jan. 27 meeting.

At the Jan. 13 work session, board member Diego Hernandez urged caution, "the safer the better, I would say, the more cautious the better."

Board member Joe Teeny said he was concerned about opening and then having to close buildings again, as has happened in other parts of the country.

Students in the metro area have been learning at home since March 2020, as the COVID-19 virus spread through Oregon.

For most of that time, schools could only open if their area met strict parameters tied to infection rates. But on Dec. 23, Gov. Kate Brown said school districts themselves would be allowed to make the decision about opening buildings to students.

Multnomah County is still in the "extreme risk" category for COVID-19 infections. As of Jan. 19, COVID-19 has already killed more than 1,800 Oregonians and infected more than 134,000.

In East Multnomah County, only the Corbett School District is letting a few students return to school buildings. Corbett announced it would allow 50 students to come back the week of Jan. 25, in what is called Limited In-Person Instruction.

Other districts are waiting a while.

Gresham-Barlow School District has not set a date for students to return to the classroom. A few weeks ago, it allowed high school students to come to campus for outdoor athletic training, but not team practices.

In a letter to Centennial School District families sent out the weekend of Jan. 9-10, Superintendent Paul Coakley said "Multnomah County is far from meeting the advisory metric for moving to return to in-person instruction. Therefore, the Centennial School District will continue in Comprehensive Distance Learning for the foreseeable future."

If districts open, they are still required to adhere to 164 safety guidelines. For example, students must have 35 square feet each in the classroom, masks are required, and 6 feet of social distancing must be maintained.

Many teachers have balked at returning until school staff, including bus drivers, secretaries and others, can be vaccinated against the virus.

Gov. Brown said school staff are eligible to be vaccinated beginning Jan. 25. But the state's vaccination program has been slow to rollout and has been surrounded by confusion, so it is unclear when school employees will actually get vaccines. And, with the two doses separated by several weeks, it takes as much as six weeks for the vaccine to be effective.

Testing is also an issue. The current Oregon Health Authority plan is for students to test themselves — swabbing their own noses — if they are exposed to the virus or come to school with symptoms. An adult would be standing by to supervise their self-tests.

The Oregon Department of Education on Tuesday, Jan. 19 relaxed the infection metric guidelines that will allow schools to reopen. But the metrics are only guidelines and districts make the decision about re-opening.

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