Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced yet another new set of school re-opening guidelines on Friday, March 5, that mandates public school students be back in classrooms before the weeks of March 29 for elementary students and April 19 for middle and high schoolers.
"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 said in a letter to state health and education agencies.
Schools have been scrambling to try to plan the complex re-openings amid "a continuous storm of changes" as Gresham-Barlow School District superintendent said at a board meeting Thursday, March 4, the day before Brown's latest announcement.
Most schools in the Portland metro area have been closed, or open to a very limited number of students, for nearly a year. Statewide, 106,946 students are in classrooms at least part time.
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.
Some area districts already had announced plans to return students to school in the hybrid models. Gresham-Barlow announced Thursday, Feb. 4, that it planned to open buildings on April 1 to the youngest students in a hybrid model, phasing in grade levels until all grades are sitting in desks by April 22.
Portland Public Schools had planned to bring its K-5 students back in early April, with middle and high schoolers returning to classes at an unspecified date during the fourth quarter of the school year.
It's unclear how the governor's announcement will impact the Portland district's already established timeline.
"The district has been planning to offer hybrid instruction to students at the beginning of the 4th quarter," a PPS spokesperson noted Friday. "As far as how today's announcement by the Governor affects the precise start dates, we will have more to share with our families on that soon."
Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said "I am optimistic we will meet that deadline."
Brown said her latest "Friday surprise" came about because of the statistics on the pandemic. "Thanks to the smart choices Oregonians have made, our COVID-19 numbers have declined. All but six counties now meet or exceed Oregon's advisory metrics for a return to in-person, hybrid learning for all K-12 grade levels," she said in a statement.
Brown noted that with proper safety measures, "there is a low risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools. Oregon parents can be confident about sending their children back to school."
Brown said that after the March 29 and April 19 dates, schools can choose to have students come back either fully on-site or in the so-called hybrid model, which has students in the classrooms part-time and learning remotely part-time.
When they re-open buildings, currently school districts must follow more than 160 pandemic safety guidelines. 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 re-opening schools by Friday, March 19.
Those rules mean the hybrid model is the only one available to schools 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.
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