Oregon governor orders public schools to reopen by mid-April
It’s been almost a year since Gov. Kate Brown ordered schools to close because of COVID-19. Now, she’s ordering them to open back up again.
“All public schools will operate delivering in-person instruction through either a fully on-site or a hybrid instructional model, while continuing to follow the mandatory health and safety guidance from RSSL [Ready Schools, Safe Learners],” Brown wrote in a letter addressed to the leaders of the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education.
The order directs school districts to open for students in grades kindergarten through fifth grade on or before the week of March 29, and for students in grades 6-12 on or before the week of April 19.
“I am using this phased approach because, as we have seen from school districts that have returned to in-person instruction successfully, schools will return our youngest learners to school first, and apply the lessons learned from that implementation process to reopening middle and high school buildings,” Brown wrote.
According to the Oregon Department of Education, almost 700 schools were operating in either a hybrid instructional model, which includes some in-person instruction, or a fully on-site model as of Feb. 27. The majority of schools — and students — in Oregon are still in comprehensive distance learning, with some small groups receiving limited in-person instruction.
Two of Oregon’s largest school districts, Portland Public Schools and Beaverton School District, had previously announced plans to reopen in hybrid for elementary students in early April.
Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said Friday the district is looking forward to face-to-face learning, as the “ideal educational model.”
“We are excited to move to hybrid instruction and offer exponentially more in-person opportunities across our PPS schools. We are ready to welcome our students, educators and school staff back to safe, supportive learning environments,” said Guerrero in a statement.
“And we are eager to accelerate talks with our labor partners, including our teachers union, about how to best create an in-school model that best meets our students’ needs.”
In Beaverton, survey results from elementary families were roughly “split down the middle”, with half of families wanting to remain in distance learning and the other half wanting hybrid.
The district and teachers union are currently negotiating plans for hybrid instruction.
Beaverton Education Association President Sara Schmitt said the governor’s order was a surprise.
“We had a schedule for that transition to happen, and I’m hoping we’ll be able to continue on with the plans the districts had because I know both families and students and educators really just need some consistency and some predictability,” Schmitt said. ”I’m hoping that this executive order doesn’t change that schedule.”
Brown’s date for an elementary return to in-person instruction is on or before the week of March 29. Beaverton’s plan doesn’t bring students into the classroom until April 5. Brown’s timing for secondary students aligns with the district’s current plan.
Salem-Keizer, another large district, has already rolled out hybrid instruction for students in kindergarten and first grade. The district’s goal is to have all elementary students in hybrid learning by spring break later this month. Hybrid learning for secondary students is set to begin
“We have been in planning for weeks,” said Sylvia McDaniel, Salem-Keizer’s director of community relations and communications wrote in an email to OPB.
Other districts in the Portland-metro area planned to continue in distance learning while expanding limited in-person. Brown’s announcement changes that.
“The David Douglas School District will immediately begin working to meet those deadlines and reopen in what is likely to be a hybrid model,” said the district in a message to families and staff sent Friday.
Leaders of Oregon’s teachers union responded to the announcement with a nuanced message, expressing support for a return to in-person learning, but repeating their emphasis on safety precautions.
“We hear, understand, and share the frustration expressed by many in our communities about the uncertainty this pandemic has caused for our public education system,” said the statement signed by dozens of local union presidents, “and the long-standing educational disparities that continue to be exacerbated by reopening plans that fail to truly center student equity.”
The union message calls on leaders in school districts where agreements haven’t been reached to continue bargaining “in good faith with local educators to craft plans that will truly serve all of our students.”
Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, stressed the need for a safe plan for all students, especially those most impacted by COVID-19.
“We also need to make sure that before just bringing people into buildings to say that buildings are open, we need to have a plan that’s going to make sure that kids’ needs are being met,” Thiel said. “And that it’s not some kids get something at the expenses of others...centering our most impacted students and families in the plans that we’re making.”
The statewide organization representing school board members, the Oregon School Boards Association, applauded the governor’s announcement, noting that numerous school districts had already reopened for hybrid learning.
“Our students need to return to the classroom,” said Maureen Wolf, the chair of the school board of the Tigard-Tualatin School District and OSBA president. “Many districts across Oregon have shown that we can do this in a safe manner by administrators and school boards working with their local health officials and their communities.”
Under Brown’s order, districts may provide comprehensive distance learning under “defined circumstances” for individual students “when accommodations are necessary for individual student health and safety.”
Brown’s letter tells the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education to issue updated reopening guidance for public schools “no later than March 19.”
Oregon business groups cheered the announced return of in-person learning Friday. They see reopening schools as a big kick to the tires of local economies by easing the burden on workers — those on the front lines, those who lost their jobs, and others working from home.
President and CEO of Oregon Business and Industry Sandra McDonough said the biggest concern she’s heard from employers and employees is the uncertainty that school closures created.
“The system that they’ve relied on for where their kids are going to be all day wasn’t there,” McDonough said.
The statewide move to online learning at the start of the pandemic forced many parents to split time and energy between their day jobs - if they kept them at all - and their children’s education.
“Having in-person learning allows for parents to have the opportunity to return to work, and that’s big,” said Andrew Hoan, president and CEO of the Portland Business Alliance. “That’s big for emotional well-being, for financial well-being and for the betterment of our cities.”
Hoan added that the safe reopening of schools paves the way for relaxing other social restrictions — so long as COVID-19 cases continue to trend down and vaccinations trend up — which will help restart the economy.
The next piece of the puzzle business groups are eyeing is the return of office work, which Hoan said will help revive retail and hospitality sectors.
Bradley W. Parks contributed to this story.
This is a developing story. Watch for updates.
Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting