Many Oregon school districts have decided to delay any in-person instruction until at least November following Gov. Kate Brown’s announcement Tuesday of new coronavirus-related metrics for reopening schools.
In the Portland area, Portland Public Schools, the region’s largest district, announced that all of its classes will be online until at least Nov. 5. Other districts including Beaverton, Lake Oswego, Tigard-Tualatin, North Clackamas, Hood River County and Hillsboro have made similar announcements to stay remote until late October or early November.
Tigard-Tualatin School District Superintendent Dr. Sue Rieke-Smith told OPB that it was a “relief” to announce the district would not open until at least early November, specifically due to the district having a significant number of staff in “high-risk categories,” including people over the age of 60 and people with underlying health conditions.
“To be able to say to [the staff] that, yes, we have metrics, we have guides now that will help us make the determination when conditions are safe, versus when we need to take an online stance, is extremely helpful to all in terms of making sense to the community at large,” Rieke-Smith said.
She acknowledged that for parents, the news may have been received as more of a “burden.”
“To our parents, first and foremost, I want to say I hear you,” Rieke-Smith said. “I absolutely believe, as do my fellow superintendents and educators across the state, that we do our best work for our students when they are in front of us in the classrooms. Everyone wants to get there eventually.”
Rieke-Smith is encouraging parents to reach out to their schools and that the district will be working to provide resources and services. For example, she said the district has partnered with a community group to provide boxes of food to families in need. She said the district has also developed “multicultural teams” to reach out to communities of color to identify needs.
Rieke-Smith said returning to classrooms this school year is a possibility as long as Oregonians continue taking precautions including wearing face coverings and practicing social distancing.
Under Oregon’s latest metrics, no school district in the Portland metro area is currently able to reopen for in-person instruction.
In order to resume in-person classes, counties in which schools are located must have a lower number of coronavirus cases and a lower test positivity rate relative to the county population. Specifically, a county must have 10 or fewer cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period for three consecutive weeks.
Before any counties can open, the entire state needs to have a positivity rate of less than 5% for three weeks. Oregon’s test positivity rate has exceeded 5% each of the past three weeks. The positivity rate is the percentage of tests that come back positive. Since under-testing can artificially lower numbers, the positivity rate can help determine if a county is testing enough.
There are exceptions for rural schools with fewer than 100 students and for students in grades K-3, an age group identified as particularly receptive to in-person learning. Small schools are less likely to have a large outbreak, and there’s some evidence that young children are less likely to spread the disease. The threshold for those groups is looser — 30 or fewer cases per 100,000 people.
If schools were to reopen this week, only one county currently meets the benchmarks required for a total reopening of schools. Wheeler County, with a population of around 1,300, has yet to report a single confirmed coronavirus case. Other counties are close: 17 counties have a low enough positivity rate to reopen, but their case counts per 100,000 people are still too high. However, 12 counties would meet the benchmarks to reopen rural schools and allow classes for students in kindergarten through third grade. No one knows what will happen come fall, but several counties with high positivity rates and high caseloads are seeing a decline. A handful, like Lincoln County, could meet the benchmarks as early as next week.
Outside of the Portland region, other school districts are also planning to start the school year off with distance learning.
Salem-Keizer Public Schools said it is tentatively planning for in-person instruction to begin the week of Nov. 16, if the metrics can be met. Chemawa Indian School, the boarding school for Native American students outside Salem, announced its remote learning plan earlier in the week. The Corvallis School District said it also plans on having at least the first six weeks of its school year online.
Districts in eastern Oregon such as the Milton-Freewater Unified School District and Umatilla School District have also said they plan to begin the year with online remote learning, though they have not signaled a date to consider switching to in-person schooling.
In southern Oregon, districts like Grants Pass, Medford and Roseburg have all also announced that they don’t currently meet the metrics to hold in-person classes for all of their students. Medford said Jackson County is “just below the threshold” for the district to have in-person instruction for students in kindergarten through third grade and it is currently weighing its options.
Other districts throughout Oregon including 4J School District in Eugene, Bend-LaPine and Ashland have not given any further updates based on the new metrics.