District mulls options after Gov. Brown changes policy

The New Era

Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday, Dec. 23, directed the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority to implement several new policy initiatives, with the goal of putting more school districts on track to return students to in-person instruction, especially elementary students, by Feb. 15.

“As 2021 approaches and we look to the remaining school year just over the horizon, it is clear that the greatest gift we can give to Oregon’s children this holiday season is to redouble our efforts to act responsibly and reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. Our students’ learning, resilience, and future well-being depend on all of us,” Brown said.

“Each and every Oregonian must do our part now to be disciplined and vigilant, to socially distance, wear facial coverings, avoid large gatherings, and follow other necessary public health requirements.

“The alternative is for Oregonians to remain at risk from the disease for far longer, and for perhaps 90% of Oregon’s students to continue on the unpromising path of spending the remainder of their school year locked out by this virus from their classrooms and youth activities where they best learn, grow, and find connection, safety and support.”

In her letter to ODE and OHA, the governor directed the state agencies to continue to partner with school districts, educators, and communities in decision-making processes “grounded in sound science and public health and safety,” with the goal of preparing more Oregon schools, especially elementary schools, to return to in-person instruction by Feb. 15.

In addition, Brown announced that Oregon’s school metrics, the measures of local community spread of COVID-19 that guide when re-opening is appropriate, will be advisory rather than mandatory, effective Jan. 1.

Moving forward, decisions to resume in-person instruction must be made locally, district by district, school by school. That doesn’t necessarily mean schools can re-open in all areas instantly, though; districts are still required to make that decision under the advice of the local health authority, in the case of Sweet Home, the Linn County Health Department.

Supt. Tom Yahraes said the district plans to follow health and safety protocols and guidance as it moves towards returning students to school. He said the governor’s announcement involves five different directives that require significant interpretation.

The first directs state agencies to try and get students back to in-person instruction soon, particularly students in grade school. Other directives involve bringing rapid on-site COVID testing to schools to minimize quarantining and developing clear instructions and guidelines for local schools by Jan. 19.

“This information is very new,” Yahraes said. “I’m optimistic. But we really need to see when the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education gets through with this process, where we’ll be at and how that impacts our schools.”

He said the rapid on-site testing in particular could be revolutionary in the district’s ability to re-open safely, particularly because just two or three cases can cause a school to shut down.

“What I’d like to see the state deliver, which they have not at this point, is the rapid testing. We should have had that in August.”

According to Brown, schools are still required to adhere to health and safety protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and must work in close consultation with their local public health authority to determine when and how to open.

Many other states, including Washington, have advisory metrics.

Brown added: “As our neighbors to the north have demonstrated, this does not mean schools can resume in-person instruction without regard for COVID-19 spread in the community, but instead should carefully consider the metrics in their local context, the needs of students and families, and readiness to implement health and safety protocols. 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.”

Yahraes pointed out that Linn County has been hit hard by COVID in recent weeks, multitudes beyond where the numbers are supposed to be to re-open schools. He pointed out the entire state of Oregon shut down schools last spring when there were 30 or so cases in the entire state.

“In contrast, now we’re seeing in Linn County 30 cases, sometimes, a day,” Yahraes said. “For school districts, parents, educators and communities to throw everything out, that contradicts everything we’ve been doing previously. So, there’s going to be a lot to reckon with. We need to make sure we have the health and safety protocols in place.”

He added that Linn County health officials operate very closely with the Oregon Health Authority and under its guidance. So although there is more local control, it’s not as if Yahraes alone can throw the doors wide open. And he’s OK with that, he said.

“We are not the experts in health in science and pandemic protocols. So we need guidance from health authorities to help us navigate this time period responsibly.”

Yahraes sent a communiqué to staff last week, issued shortly after the governor’s announcement, saying the governor’s message “puts us on the path together to return more students to in-person instruction, prioritizing elementary schools across the state.”

“Importantly, this letter continues and expands a key shift in policy,” he said, adding that “this change will mean that decisions about what instructional model to operate in will move through a local process, with guidance from ODE and OHA on how districts and schools should consider the county metrics and local conditions.”

He said he plans to participate in a Jan. 5 meeting with Colt Gill, director of ODE, to work out specifics of the new rules.

“I’m excited. You know, we can see the harm that the kids are suffering socially, emotionally, academically,” Yahraes said. “Getting kids in schools is imperative. We need to return to in-person learning.”