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Gov. Kate Brown changes course, allows local districts to decide on opening schools – OregonLive

Gov. Kate Brown announced Wednesday that Oregon schools will be allowed to open their doors to students starting Jan. 1, as the state will no longer mandate closures based on the severity of the coronavirus pandemic in a school district’s county.

Realistically, schools almost certainly won’t open that fast. It will likely take weeks for district officials to decide if their schools should reopen and, if so, how to prepare.

The governor’s office cautioned school districts to be wise.

“Let me be clear: Like any government entity or responsible employer, schools or school districts need to keep in mind the obligations and risks that a major pandemic imposes on them,” spokesman Charles Boyle said.

The governor said her hope is that “more” Oregon schools resume on-site teaching by Feb. 15, particularly elementary schools.

Coronavirus in Oregon: Dec. 23

Coronavirus infection rates, total cases, deaths and hospitalizations in Oregon as of Dec. 23.

Though untethered from state metrics, school districts will have to continue to follow Oregon’s safety guidelines, Boyle said.

Still, Brown’s announcement signaled even more forcefully the state’s focus on getting kids back into schools, following close on the heels of her Tuesday request that health officials prioritize teachers and education-related workers for the next round of vaccines.

“As we move into a new year, we must all rise to the challenges that COVID-19 presents and prioritizing our children is most urgent,” Brown said.

The policy change is nothing short of seismic, nine months after Brown first barred Oregon’s 580,000 K-12 students from attending classes in person. The state first set metrics in July to determine which schools could reopen, tethering districts to coronavirus case and positive test rates in their counties.

Now, Oregon’s 197 school districts and more than 1,200 schools will have to make the call themselves. While the state’s case and rate metrics were a relatively cut-and-dry approach, local officials will have to juggle a much more complicated formula — and a wider array of opinions — when deciding whether to reopen their schools.

Given that Oregon will update school safety requirements by Jan. 19, the governor’s office suggested districts wait until then to make a decision. And, the office said, those decisions should not be taken lightly.

“It is incredibly important that school districts engage in a rigorous local process around local reopening decisions, to make sure they are making the right decisions for their community,” Boyle said.

Districts should “move thoughtfully as they plan,” Colt Gill, the state’s top education official, said Wednesday.

Gill’s agency, the Oregon Department of Education, has been helping schools reopen safely and plans to continue to do so. That work has so far been successful, Gill said, with infections not spreading once somebody brings the virus inside a school.

Of the 82 schools with a recent coronavirus case, about two-thirds had two or fewer cases, Oregon Health Authority data show.

Oregon is one of just 12 states with full or partial school closures, according to research compiled by Education Week. Now, Oregon joins most of the rest of the country, which tends to allow local officials to decide when to open schools. Just four states have ordered schools to reopen.

Brown said she wants just about everyone to be involved in those decisions, from school boards and superintendents to teachers, parents and students. She asked the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education to help make sure those decisions are in line with sound science.

The Oregon School Boards Association sounded a hopeful but practical note in response.

“Our school boards welcome the opportunity to reopen schools safely for our students, staff and communities,” said Executive Director Jim Green. “This next step will require close coordination with local health authorities. Above all we want to minimize risks as we return to in-person instruction.”

Some Oregon parents have been clamoring for schools to reopen, citing the damage distance learning can inflict on their children’s mental health, academic achievement and motivation.

The ripple effects of distance learning have been felt statewide. Some parents have to juggle working from home while trying to keep their kids in chairs and in front of a computer. Others have essential jobs that don’t allow remote work. And yet others rely on schools to give their children at least one healthy meal a day.

Teachers, meanwhile, have generally been wary of reopening schools too quickly.

Just 14% of Portland Public Schools educators said they felt comfortable teaching in person, according to a teachers’ union survey. And in one particularly striking expression of discontent, Douglas High School staff resigned en masse in October when district officials reopened the school despite educators’ concerns about the coronavirus.

— Staff writer Eder Campuzano contributed to this report.

— Fedor Zarkhin | fzarkhin@oregonian.com | 503-294-7674

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