Governor orders schools open: Right move, wrong approach
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. The governor took some heat for prioritizing school employees for COVID-19 vaccinations — a move that 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 understand the full impact a full 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 was a classic solution in search of a problem and ended up creating more stress for school official and more confusion among parents and students who suddenly were 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 busses run on time. Literally.
It's tougher to open a school than to order it opened even in the best of circumstances. In the era of a coronavirus, 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 busses. 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 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 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 also was a not-so-subtle message to the state's largest school district, Portland Public Schools, which is enmeshed 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 she needn't have put districts and parents in a tailspin, trying to figure out if they could move up the dates they planned to reopen classrooms, after her surprise announcement.
A week later, the only impact of the governor's order seems to be disorder. On March 12, she signaled that schools had a week of flexibility, which helped many, but not all districts.
Some districts are simply ignoring the order and sticking to their original, later, start dates. Others are lobbying the governor for more flexibliy, which she should allow.
Parents are left to come up with contingency plans for child care, transportation and all the other logistics of sending kids back to school.
As of today, a week after Brown's order, the Oregon Department of Education was unable to say whether districts would be permitted to stick with their original plans, despite assurances to superintendents that such guidance would be forthcoming.
We're betting that in the end, Brown will quietly back down, as she should, allowing districts to keep their previously announced schedule for resuming in-person learning as long as their calendars were set in good faith.
She will get the benefit of having looked tough, which will play well with parents — particularly white, middle-class parents. She'll blunt the GOP critics while also having matched the message of President Biden, which will play well with her party's political base.
And she will actually have done little to get schools open any earlier, while missing an opportunity to address some real unresolved questions:
n 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.
n What is the state's plan to deal with the decision of thousands of parents to hold their 5-year-olds out of public kindergarten this year?
n What "emergency" is her order to open schools addressing? And, what will happen to districts that need more time than she's allowing?
n What support will be given to the handful of schools which, relying on the authority they were promised in December, decided to forego in-class instruction this school year?
Rather than answer those questions this month, the governor raised new ones. Sadly, there's no surprise there.
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