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Governor turns responsibility for opening schools over to local districts

Gov. Kate Brown today (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, 2021.

“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, 2021.

In addition, Oregon’s school metrics, the measures of local community spread of COVID-19 that guide when it is appropriate to open schools for in person instruction, 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. In addition to schools continuing to adhere to required health and safety protocols and working in close consultation with their local public health authority in understanding and considering the metrics, teachers, school staff, parents and students should be engaged in this decision-making process to allow schools to make the best choice for their community and their students.

Many 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.”

Sweet Home schools Supt. Tom Yahraes, in a communiqué to staff issued shortly after the governor's announcement, said the letter'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 with Colt Gill, director of ODE, to work out specifics of the new rules.