Thousands of students are headed back to in-person learning in the coming weeks, based on decisions some of the state’s larger school districts have made recently. It’s possible those numbers will grow further, now that Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has opened the door to vaccinate teachers, starting Jan. 23.
Many of the decisions by school leaders to begin in-person learning followed another announcement from the governor on Dec. 23, when she pressed schools to reopen by the middle of next month. Her pressure set off a debate among parents, administrators and teachers over the importance of vaccines, the urgency of in-person instruction and potential viral spread within school buildings.
OPB’s analysis of reopening plans for Oregon’s 30 largest school districts reflects different approaches to reopening. Klamath County schools have already reopened. Bend La-Pine is Oregon’s largest district set to reopen in-person, with plans to begin welcoming students into buildings later this month, despite teacher pushback.
However, most of Oregon’s largest school districts are staying in distance learning, with at least two large districts, David Douglas and Reynolds, committing to comprehensive distance learning until late March.
“I understand that remaining in Comprehensive Distance Learning through Spring Break may not be welcome news to everyone in our community,” wrote Reynolds Superintendent Danna Diaz in a letter to families sent Thursday.
“There are no easy decisions when weighing the benefits of in-person instruction with the risks of serious illness or death from COVID-19.”
Some districts continue to operate limited in-person instruction for a small number of students who need extra support. Later this month, Oregon’s largest school district, Portland Public Schools, will join that group.
“The initial focus for limited in-person instruction is for younger students and sixth and ninth graders who have not been engaged or who received failing grades in the first quarter and high school students who need to make up credits required for graduation,” said PPS’ Chief of Schools Shawn Bird during a board meeting Tuesday night.
Another school district, Hillsboro, plans to expand limited in-person instruction to high school seniors who need extra support to graduate, and preschool students. The district already started instruction this week for small groups of students with special needs and as part of an after school program.
But there’s another key date districts are waiting for: Jan. 19, when the Oregon Department of Education will update its “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidance to update metrics for returning to in-person instruction.
Over the last week, districts including Tigard-Tualatin say returning to in-person learning is contingent on whatever comes out of that guidance next week, in addition to what they hear from county health partners and “district association leaders.” Tigard-Tualatin’s phased-in approach has schools reopening two grades at a time, beginning with Pre-K and 1st grade, with a target date “similar to the Governor’s, around the middle of February,” said Supt. Sue Rieke-Smith. Brown set a Feb. 15 goal to get students back into classrooms.
Tigard-Tualatin’s plan also includes “supplementary, extra-curricular in-person sessions” for students in grades 6-12.
“We hear clearly that students’ mental health, anxiety, and depression are up. And their desire to have that face to face is strong,” Rieke-Smith said.
But the unions representing the district’s educators and classified employees have expressed concern about returning to school in-person before vaccinations.
“People think we can just open the doors and enter back into the schools and it is not that simple,” said Scott Herron, Tigard-Tualatin Education Association president during Monday’s school board meeting.
Like union leaders from Oregon’s other large school districts, Herron expressed concern and frustration with Brown’s changing reopening metrics. He said in a survey of almost 700 educators, 85% of those surveyed said they would return to work if vaccinated.
“What we’re going to have in the state of Oregon is not one plan, we’re going to have 200+ plans depending on what district you’re in,” Herron said.
“There’s not a cohesive thought to it.”
The largest district on the Oregon Coast is also preparing to reopen, with the Lincoln County School District aiming to start hybrid instruction for younger grades Feb. 1 and older students Feb. 8. But the majority of larger districts have no immediate plans to provide anything more than limited in-person learning for the time being.
Districts across the region are feeling pulled in opposite directions, as they hear from staff, parents, and students willing to stay home and those pressing to return to school. But come Jan. 19, the state of things will likely change again.
“My email’s been running ‘1 to 1’ – for everyone I get that says ‘open schools,’ I have one that says ‘close,’” Rieke-Smith said.
“I’ve never seen anything like it.”