Gov. Brown orders schools to send kids back to the classroom, Salem-Keizer sets dates for older students
Oregon schools must reopen for in-person or hybrid learning by mid-April, according to an executive order Gov. Kate Brown announced Friday.
The order, which is forthcoming, will require every district to offer in-person instruction to K-5 students by March 29 and, in areas where counties meet the COVID-19 advisory metrics, students in grades 6-12 by April 19.
Marion and Polk counties currently meet the metrics to require K-12 students to return to school.
Individual families who want to remain in distance learning may do so, according to the Governer's Office.
"Whether or not public schools should return kids to the classroom this spring is no longer up for discussion," Brown wrote in the letter announcing the change. "The science and data (are) clear, schools can return to in-person instruction with a very low risk of COVID-19 transmission, particularly with a vaccinated workforce."
Brown issued her first executive order closing schools on March 12, 2020. Many Oregon schools have remained virtual so far this school year.
Salem-Keizer Public Schools began returning to classroom learning Tuesday, starting with grades K-1.
Under the district's hybrid model, students attend in person two days a week to keep classes small enough to socially distance. Students continue remote learning on alternate days.
Grades 2-3 will return starting March 9, and grades 4-5 starting March 16.
The Oregon School Boards Association and Oregon Education Association support the new timeline.
"Educators throughout the state have worked tirelessly with local school districts to create in-person instruction plans that will meet the unique needs of their communities while keeping students, families and educators safe," OEA and several unions from across the state, including the Salem-Keizer Education Association, wrote in a joint letter.
"We urge our local school districts to continue to work in good faith with local educators to craft plans that will truly serve all of our students."
Salem-Keizer announces re-entry dates for older students
Salem-Keizer Public Schools announced Friday that secondary students will begin the week of April 13 with a rollout schedule.
Students in grades 6, 9 and 10 will begin hybrid classes on either April 13 or 14, depending on their cohort, followed by students in grades 7, 8, 11 and 12 starting either April 15 or 16.
Because Salem-Keizer will have all K-12 students in hybrid learning by April 19, Brown's latest announcement should not impact the district.
Iton Udosenata, the co-assistant superintendent who oversees secondary education in Salem-Keizer, said the district meets often with other districts in Oregon — including those in Portland, Beaverton and Eugene — to discuss strategies for school re-entry.
District leaders have heard from people on both sides of the reopening debate, Udosenata said — some don't understand why Salem-Keizer didn't fully reopen in January when the COVID metrics became advisory instead of mandatory; others don't understand why the district is opening this spring at all.
Udosenata said the district's rollout plan should allow educators and families to be "confident we are bringing students back safely."
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The new statewide timeline
The Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education must issue updated guidance by March 19 to match the governor's latest directives, which could include updating the state's Ready Schools, Safe Learners document.
This is the latest in a long line of changes to state rules for districts in the past year.
Brown's sweeping executive action for in-person learning contrasts her decision in December to give decision-making power to individual districts.
At a recent visit to Kalapuya Elementary School in west Salem, Brown asked Salem-Keizer Superintendent Christy Perry how the state can support educators through the transition.
Perry said consistent guidance is among the most helpful things.
Looking at districts like Salem-Keizer, Charles Boyle with the Governor's Office said it's logistically more feasible for districts to start with elementary students.
April 19 is near the start of the fourth quarter for Oregon schools as well, he said, which is why the announcement was timed the way it was.
"We've seen COVID-19 rates continue to go down across the state, and at this point, all but six counties meet the advisory metrics for return to hybrid in-person for K-12," Boyle said. "Five of those six counties qualify for hybrid elementary."
In a letter to OHA and ODE, Brown pointed to several reasons for her decision, including the decline in COVID-19 cases across the state since December, K-12 educators being vaccinated since late January, the implementation of a statewide rapid testing program and $500 million in federal aid for health and safety updates.
Oregon was among the first states to prioritize vaccines for teachers. Not everyone, including teachers, was initially behind the idea.
"Because of this progress and the great work done by Oregon's schools, parents, students, administrators, teachers, and staff, the time has come for our students to return to the learning environment we know serves them best," Brown wrote.
Brown's Friday announcement follows several similar pushes across the country. A handful of other governors and state lawmakers — including leaders in Arizona, California, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin — are pushing for schools to reopen.
Just two days ago, Gov. Doug Ducey in Arizona ordered all schools to return to in-person learning this month.
Distance learning options
After March 29, Oregon public schools will only be allowed to offer comprehensive distance learning in "defined circumstances," according to Brown's letter.
It can be offered to individual students who are considered high-risk or have a family member who is high-risk, for example.
Districts can also revert to distance learning if community transmission of COVID-19 is high enough according to ODE's advisory metrics or local public health authorities.
"There's an urgency to get students back into school this school year; we know how important in-person instruction is," Boyle said.
"Those local conversations are still important, and they still need to take place," he said, "but this puts a timeline on that shift to hybrid instruction being the primary model."
Many districts across the state have worked with employee groups and parents to continue offering comprehensive distance learning, even after schools return to hybrid or in-person learning.
Salem-Keizer will continue to work with families on an individual basis since they are no longer enrolling students in the online academy known as EDGE.
Brown's announcement comes one day after Oregon House and Senate Republicans sent a letter to Brown, calling on her to "utilize the full authority of the Office of the Governor and intervene immediately to reopen schools to full in-person instruction."
"Honestly," Boyle said, "it's the governor who's been pushing to reopen schools, but doing it right."
For more information and to read Brown's executive orders, go to www.oregon.gov/gov/.
Contact reporter Jordyn Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-246-4264, and follow her on Twitter @thejordynbrown and Instagram @registerguard.