PSD Return to School

Sunridge Middle School teacher Katie Bodewig leads a math lesson from her classroom in Pendleton on Sept. 9, 2020.

SALEM — School districts around the state had been waiting on the Tuesday, Jan. 19, update to Oregon’s “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidance.

The new guidance lowers the bar for districts to bring students back to the classroom for in-person instruction.

Health and safety protocols, like wearing face masks and learning in cohorts, remain required by the Oregon Department of Education. But metrics for reopening remain advisory. That continues Gov. Kate Brown’s move last month to leave final decisions on reopening schools to local districts.

“We all know that in-person instruction provides our children and families with access to an equitable education,” said ODE Director Colt Gill in a release announcing the updated guidance.

“Schools are a center of services to students and families, offering nutritious meals, access to social-emotional and mental health supports, as well as physical health services. This guidance provides new resources to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and better meet students’ needs in this time.”

The state’s new guidance says districts should still consider community case counts before reopening — but lowers the bar for COVID-19 case rates recommended for hybrid learning, especially for Oregon’s youngest students.

Now, schools are advised to begin reopening for “elementary on-site and hybrid transition” when county case counts per 100,000 are 350 or below. The previous metrics set the metrics for a transition to “limited in-person instruction” at 200 or below. County test positivity requirements have changed too.

These updated advisory metrics align to recommendations from the Harvard Global Health Institute, according to the Oregon Department of Education. These relaxed metrics allow in-person elementary instruction with higher COVID-19 case rates than previous metrics.

ODE said the changes align with recommendations from the Harvard Global Health Institute.

According to weekly metrics reported by the Oregon Health Authority, these metrics allow for reopening in several Oregon counties, including Multnomah County.

Portland Public Schools, the largest district in Multnomah County and Oregon, previously announced a plan to offer limited in-person instruction for some students.

The new guidelines received a “mixed” reception from ED 300, a parents’ group that’s been pushing the state to adopt less rigid guidelines and to allow more local control in school reopening decisions.

On one hand, the group said, “Parents are encouraged by the revisions that permit the state’s youngest learners to return to in-person learning in both hybrid and full-time models,” in a statement provided by co-founder Rene Gonzalez.

But the approach to older students has the parent group arguing that the last 10 months out of school has already harmed the academic development and mental health of thousands of students.

“We continue to be very concerned that the state of Oregon is writing off a generation of middle-schoolers and high-schoolers particularly in larger counties,” Gonzalez said, referring to the higher case counts and greater difficulty of reopening in more populous counties. Gonzalez and others in the parents’ group are advocating for not just a resumption of instruction for older students, but a return of sports, activities and academic counseling.

For schools that choose to reopen for hybrid learning despite high case counts, they must offer access to on-site COVID testing for symptomatic students and staff, plus those with known exposure to COVID-19.

ODE recommends a 14-day window before returning to in-person instruction.

“This will support district planning, family communication, and a more gradual—rather than rushed— opening,” according to the guidance.

In a message to families on Jan. 19, Beaverton School District asked for time in allowing staff to consider ODE’s guidance. They also addressed frustrations from parents seeing other school districts — both around the state and nationally — reopen. In addition, district officials cited a lack of liability protection around reopening.

“If and when anyone were to become sick (or worse) from COVID-19, a district could face expensive lawsuits,” according to BSD’s message. “Most districts, including ours, cannot afford to take on that level of risk. Any legal settlements would directly impact future funding for students.”

The state also requires that a school employee be included in reopening plans and the guidance mandates training for all staff before reopening in person.

For schools considering providing instruction outdoors, the updated guidance includes resources for that possibility.

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