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High schools in Oregon face dilemma over pandemic, instruction... and football

Gov. Kate Brown has told school leaders that for football games to take place on fields like this one next to Portland's Roosevelt High School, instruction has to be taking place indoors, at least in a limited capacity.
Rob Manning
Gov. Kate Brown has told school leaders that for football games to take place on fields like this one next to Portland's Roosevelt High School, instruction has to be taking place indoors, at least in a limited capacity.

In the topsy-turvy world created by the global pandemic, it’s suddenly football season for Oregon high schools — at least for some of them. Football season was canceled last fall, and the Oregon School Activities Association worked with school administrators to move the season to late winter. But actual kickoffs and touchdowns involving Portland-area high schools will depend on what’s going on inside those school buildings.

Gov. Kate Brown has been pressing schools for some time to open for in-person learning, and by the most recent count, more than 116,000 Oregon school children are back in classrooms, at least part of the time. In recent weeks, Brown has moved teachers toward the front of the line to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and she revised reopening rules to make it easier for schools to meet the county-level health metrics.

But many schools remain closed, even to Limited In-Person Instruction (LIPI), which is viewed as an important step toward more extensive learning inside classrooms.

On Wednesday, Gov. Brown took her latest step to nudge schools further in the direction of in-person instruction, by allowing full-contact sports outdoors — including football — but only for schools doing some level of in-person learning. But it’s not clear that Brown’s pressure is having much effect.

For some high schools, Brown’s quid pro quo was not much of an issue. Both public high schools in Lake Oswego and all three high schools in Hillsboro were already offering LIPI before the Governor’s Wednesday announcement, according to a database kept by the Oregon Department of Education. A number of high schools outside the Portland area have been offering more extensive in-person instruction — although one high school in Bend recently had to go back to distance learning, after discovering multiple cases of COVID-19.

Other school districts with no in-person instruction in the high schools said they were preparing to start that in the coming weeks, before the governor’s announcement. For instance, several high schools in the Beaverton School District have been instructing students entirely through distance learning — including Beaverton, Mountainside and Westview. But district officials say that’s changing.

“As we’ve previously announced, all our comprehensive high schools will be doing LIPI as of February 22,” said Beaverton School District public communications officer Shellie Bailey-Shah in an email to OPB.

“And football practice will start on February 22.”

But previous messaging from Beaverton appears more tentative than that. On Jan. 8, BSD told the community that administrators were “considering offering limited in-person instruction” (italics in original), with few specifics. Three weeks later, on Jan. 27, BSD said, “Limited-In Person Instruction (LIPI) is scheduled to tentatively begin on February 22″ at 29 of the district’s more than 50 schools. But that message didn’t specify which schools, and said that LIPI “may” occur at middle and high schools.

Officials in Oregon City also said they will start offering limited in-person instruction to high school students, and like Beaverton, said the decision came before the governor’s announcement.

“We are beginning LIPI for middle school and high school students on February 16,” said Oregon City schools spokesperson Lisa Normand.

“Our plan for starting LIPI across the district was already in place prior to the Governor’s announcement.”

According to a Jan. 29 summary, Oregon City was working on its plans last month, but they were still being finalized. That summary said that the district discussed with school board members a “proposed schedule” on Jan. 25 that included among its priorities, to “[b]egin expanding Limited In-person Instruction (LIPI) for identified K-12 students on Feb. 8.”

At least one Portland-area school district is not planning to offer in-person instruction at its high schools, even if it means not playing football games. The North Clackamas School District is in comprehensive distance learning, without any in-person courses.

“[A]t this time, there is not a plan to initiate LIPI at high schools solely to facilitate sports,” said Jonathan Hutchinson, communications director at North Clackamas.

“When LIPI is initiated within NCSD, it will occur across all levels,” Hutchinson said, suggesting that limited in-person offerings would be “linked” to when a more extensive hybrid instructional approach might roll out to certain elementary grades.

Other districts appear to have made similar decisions, such as David Douglas, where the high school is not offering in-person instruction and doesn’t intend to change that decision before late March.

According to ODE’s latest information, several high schools in Oregon’s largest school district, Portland Public Schools, were not offering limited in-person instruction, including Benson, Cleveland, Jefferson and Lincoln. OPB’s messages requesting comment to PPS were not returned in time for this story.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Rob Manning has been both a reporter and an on-air host at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Before that, he filled both roles with local community station KBOO and nationally with Free Speech Radio News. He's also published freelance print stories with Portland's alternative weekly newspaper Willamette Week and Planning Magazine. In 2007, Rob received two awards for investigative reporting from the Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists, and he was part of the award-winning team responsible for OPB's "Hunger Series." His current beats range from education to the environment, sports to land-use planning, politics to housing.