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On the same day she called it a 'last resort,' Brown says staffing shortages and health concerns prompted the move.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tigard High School freshman Kyra Davala arrived Friday morning to take home her saxophone. She says she needs to practice her instrument. Tigard-Tualatin School District was among the first in Oregon to announce public school closures in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Earlier Thursday, Gov. Kate Brown said school closings in light of the COVID-19 outbreak would be a "last resort." But that evening, Brown announced statewide school closures starting Monday, March 16, through Tuesday, March 31.

The announcement, which was released at 10:10 p.m., Thursday, March 12, came after a press conference that same morning, at which Brown said school closures would come with unacceptable costs, including to low-income children who depend on schools for health care and meals.

But in a dizzying series of events reflecting the rapidly evolving crisis, Washington, Ohio and California announced school closures and top Multnomah County officials recommended the state reconsider closures and start preparing, as first reported by the Portland Tribune.

Thursday evening, two local school districts, Tigard-Tualatin and Lake Oswego, shrugged off the state's admonishments and said closures were the wiser choice. Tigard-Tualatin schools are closed as of Friday, March 13. Lake Oswego plans to close on Monday, March 16.

By Friday morning, closures were announced for the Greater Albany School District. And at the Parkrose School District in eastern Multnomah County, the middle school and high school are open Friday, but the elementary schools are closed, with no students and no parent-teacher conferences. Spring break will be extended from March 16 to 31.

The Reynolds School District, also in eastern Multnomah County, announced school closures for the week of March 16 to 20 with schools remaining closed through Spring Break, March 23 to 27.

Private schools began following suit. The Bridges Middle School in Portland, the Islamic School of Portland and the Summit Learning Charter schools in Eagle Creek and Tigard, and the Tualatin Early Childhood Center are closed as of Friday. PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, at a press conference Thursday, March 12, said schools won't close, but gatherings canceled. Later in the day she closed schools.

Changing tactics

Brown, in the announcement, defended her earlier decision but conceded the time had come.

"Schools are critical institutions that provide important services for all our students, but especially our most vulnerable," Brown said. "During this crisis I have worked hard to ensure those critical services continue. So many of our families depend on school in order for parents to go to their jobs, and for students to access health care and receive nutrition assistance.

"However, I have heard from superintendents, school board members, teachers, parents, and students that it has now become impossible to functionally operate schools due to workforce issues and student absences. Schools are experiencing critical shortages in staff, and superintendents are concerned for school personnel who are at elevated risk such as those over age 60 and those with underlying medical issues."

She added that mere closures would not be enough. More needs to be done to care for the children who need it, and the older adults they might expose.

"I want to be very clear: Sending Oregon children home will not stop the spread of the coronavirus," she said. "While children are home, when at all possible, they should not be in the care of older adults or those with underlying health issues that are most at-risk from COVID-19.

"This is a trying time for our community and I am reluctant to increase the burden on families who are already struggling to adapt to and stay healthy during this crisis. However, we are left with little choice in light of school districts' staff capacity and operational concerns. I want to thank all of the teachers and school employees who have worked hard to keep our schools open until now."

The release said that

  • School districts are directed to develop plans for returning to school that accommodate ongoing impacts of coronavirus.
  • Staff should use the last two days of March to put in place plans for operating schools under updated measures. Some students would be expected to return on Wednesday, April 1.
  • Districts must make plans to continue providing nutrition services while classes are closed.
  • The state Department of Education will examine the impact on instructional time.
  • School districts must make sure supplies are adequate for increased cleaning protocols when reopened.
  • The state's Early Learning Division will support child care programs and seek resources to support child care needs for vulnerable families, health care professionals and first responders.
  • Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education, said the Thursday release that the timeline for reopening schools may change.

    "We are in close communication with school districts across the state, and they will be communicating regularly with their school communities throughout the closure period. ... Due to the evolving nature of this crisis, these timelines will be reevaluated in late March in consultation with school administrators."

    Nick Budnick
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