OPINION: Brown's order to reopen schools fails to make the grade
As Oregon educators, parents and students prepare for a return to in-person learning, Gov. Kate Brown set a low bar for achievement on March 5 with an order to reopen classrooms that failed on many accounts.
We share the governor's desire to get students in classrooms. Brown took some heat for prioritizing school employees for COVID-19 vaccinations — a move that now looks smart. She deserves credit for that, and we agree with her that it's time to get educators and students together in person.
Similarly, we applaud Brown's focus on student's mental health. We don't yet fully understand the impact a year of isolation has had on children, but we know it's been very hard on many of them.
So why did Brown's latest "Friday surprise" fail to make the grade?
Because it created more stress for school officials and more confusion among parents and students who were suddenly confronted with mixed messages.
Our newsrooms are in touch with many school superintendents and principals who say they're as eager as the governor to welcome kids back into their buildings. They know, better than she, the limitations of distance learning and the hit to kids' social and emotional health.
But unlike the governor, they also have to make the buses run on time. Literally.
It's tougher to open a school than to order it opened even in the best of circumstances. In the midst of an ongoing pandemic, it's exponentially harder.
School officials throughout the state already were working on their plans to bring kids back to classrooms, and most had alerted parents to specific dates.
Those dates, in many cases, reflected specific circumstances. The need to finish improvements to air quality systems. The availability of buses. And, most important in an era of social distancing, an estimate of the number of kids who would be opting to walk into the re-opened classrooms
These unique situations, presumably, are why Gov. Brown in late December announced that "moving forward, the decision to resume in-person instruction must be made locally, district by district, school by school" rather than by the state.
Brown referenced the vaccinated teacher workforce in her "emergency" order that K-5 students return by March 29 and sixth- to 12th-graders come back no later than April 19.
But politics also was clearly at play. Brown's announcement, which took superintendents by surprise, came a day after Republican state lawmakers issued a joint statement on the return to classroom learning and increased pressure from Democratic President Joe Biden to do the same.
It was also a not-so-subtle message to the state's largest school district, Portland Public Schools, that was enmeshed at the time in protracted talks with its union to set a date.
We're fine with the governor, Oregon's de facto state superintendent of schools, nudging the state's largest district (and a closely allied labor organization) to stop their dickering. But in doing that, she put districts and parents in a tailspin, scrambling to figure out if they could move up the dates they planned to send kids back into classrooms.
A week later, the only impact of the governor's order seems to be disorder. On Friday, March 12, she said some districts could have a week's grace period. Others, however, would have to heed her order or risk losing state funds.
Then the rules were shifted once again on Monday, March 15. One rule keeping students 6 feet apart remained in place. Another, which would limit the number of people students could come into contact with to a maximum of 100 per week, was lifted.
Amid the whirlwind of rulings, some districts are calling her start-date bluff and sticking to their original, later, schedules. Others are lobbying the governor to stand down.
Parents are left to develop contingency plans for child care, transportation, and all the other logistics of sending kids back to school.
Meanwhile, the governor, who cited some unspecified "emergency" for ordering schools to open, has failed to address many real and urgent questions:
• What, for example, will the state's role be in dealing with lost instruction time that has disproportionately impacted students of color? Attendance data from this year's first quarter of on-line learning shows that Black, Latino and Native American students in almost every district are logging in at a lower rate than their white classmates.
• What is the state's plan to deal with thousands of parents' decisions to hold their 5-year-olds out of public kindergarten this year?
• Will the state again relax graduation/promotion standards? If so, how?
• What support will be given to the handful of schools which, relying on the authority Brown gave them in December, decided to forego in-class instruction this school year?
Instead of dealing with those questions, Brown postured. She will benefit from having looked tough, which will play well with some parents — particularly white, middle-class parents. She may blunt the GOP critics while also matching President Biden's message, which may play well with her party's political base.
But she will have done little to get schools open any earlier.
We urge the governor this week to restore what she promised schools in December, local control and flexibility, allowing schools to open as soon as possible, but specifically when and how best serves their communities' needs.
That kind of surprise would be welcome any day of the week.
Note: This editorial was updated on Monday, March 15 to reflect new guidelines issued by Gov. Brown.
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