Reinstate the recovery order and local control

By Tom Yahraes

Dear Governor Brown and Deputy Superintendent Colt Gill,

I am submitting my objection to the July 29, 2021 announcement of the reversal of the June 25, 2021 Recovery Order. 

I have been Sweet Home’s school superintendent for five years, supporting and representing 2,300 students, their families, and staff at four elementary schools, a junior high and high school. 

As a community, we have achieved great things, including raising achievement scores and graduation rates. The parents and the community supported us by passing a bond to renovate and update our schools.

We came together during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, dutifully followed OHA/ODE protocols, and delivered the best hybrid instruction we could. We are a community that puts aside any differences we have to care for our youth and support our schools.

The June 25, 2021 Recovery Order announcement allowing local control to implement health and safety protocols for the upcoming school year was enthusiastically received. For summer school, we continued to implement enhanced hygiene and cleaning protocols, 3-foot social distancing, cohort tracking, contact tracing, and quarantining if an outbreak occurred. As far as mask wearing, we made this optional, not a requirement, but welcomed and respected either choice. 

We struck a measured balance. I made it clear that if a significant outbreak occurred we would have to re-visit enhanced safety measures. 

Our safety team reviews weekly county, zip code, and school COVID case counts, test positivity, and hospitalization rates, and we are prepared to respond immediately to any outbreak. We set summer school up with protocols in place, and still, as of today, we have had no outbreaks. Students and teachers are back to smiling, reconnecting, learning and having fun.

The July 29, 2021, announcement of the June 25 Recovery Order and the subsequent mask mandate was abrupt and disheartening. Parents, students, and staff are sad, upset, frustrated, and angry. The evidence of this comes from my face-to-face conversations, emails, phone calls, and social media. 

In a lower-income community, with pockets of extreme poverty, nearly 20% of our students with disabilities, and 10% experiencing homelessness, being in school matters. It is the lifeblood of the community. Schools provide the wrap-around services students and families need.

In Sweet Home, we take seriously that our schools are safe and welcoming to all students, staff, and parents. However, the mask mandate divides our community and compels many families to consider withdrawing students from in-person instruction. The board’s goal is to keep students in school and supply them with the best academic, athletic/activities, and wrap-around support services possible while keeping students, staff, and families safe. 

We want students to be able to experience school, smiling, grinning, and even frowning. We want students to have the opportunity to communicate and express themselves openly and freely while sharing a full display of emotions. And, we welcome, respect, and support students and staff who feel more safe and comfortable with masks.

Locally, as a district, we do know the Delta variant is on the move. I am not minimizing its potential impact. We must, and we will follow all our outlined protocols. We have a lot of folks not vaccinated. Every day we face risks; for now (today) in Sweet Home the risks of COVID’s impact on students is far less than the impact of students not attending our schools because of a mask mandate. Let us make local decisions that fit our community. 

Should the variables increase, as we have shown by evidence of last year, we can adapt to heighten our health and safety protocols, including mandatory face coverings, to keep our schools open and our students, staff, and families safe. 

I believe, however, government officials should place more energy toward vaccine efforts. Vaccinations are long-term solutions that can have swift preventative effects. Vaccines helped us conquer diseases such as polio, measles, and chicken pox. The data suggests if everyone who is able to receive vaccines did so tomorrow, in two months, COVID lessens, thereafter becomes less potent, less able to mutate, and less of a threat like the mentioned diseases. Vaccines will allow Americans to get back to living freely; and if adults vaccinate, we help kids. 

Our youth have suffered through school closures, remote learning struggles, face coverings, quarantining, etc. What will the data show regarding these long-term harmful academic, social, emotional, and even physical effects on our students?

On behalf of the kids and families, we ask you to reinstate the June 25, 2021, Recovery Order, giving back local control. Sweet Home has, can, and will take care of our schools and community. 

We are Sweet Home strong.

– Tom Yahraes is retiring this week as superintendent of the Sweet Home Public School District. This is a letter he submitted last week to Gov. Kate Brown and deputy superintendent Colt Gill.