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May 12, 2021

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Some parents say enough is enough as Oregon’s school reopening guidelines remain among strictest in nation

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On a cold and drizzly Saturday afternoon in early December, Courtney Kipp and her 6-year-old daughter Hadley marched from Revolution Hall to Central Catholic High School about half a mile away.

Or they tried to, at least.

The two were rallying with a larger crowd, about 40 in all, during a protest to demand Gov. Kate Brown reopen the state’s public schools.

They eventually fell behind the rest of the group and gave up on the march. Kipp wasn’t going to force Hadley, a first-grader at River Grove Elementary in Lake Oswego, to walk when she showed signs of growing tired.

After all, they were away from home, where Kipp motivates her children to complete their virtual schoolwork with the promise of a small reward. For her son Parker, a fifth-grader, it was a commitment to let the boy participate in a youth soccer league in the fall.

Hadley?

“She loves gold stars,” Kipp said.

The push-and-pull of the Kipps grasping for motivation as their two school-aged children tire of virtual schooling is familiar for families across Oregon. The state’s 580,000 K-12 students were thrust into distance learning in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus more than nine months ago.

A survey of families in the Beaverton district found 70% would send their children back to school if given the option. About 12% of the nearly 15,000 parents polled in late October said they did not yet feel safe sending their children back to school.

Four percent said their trepidation stemmed from the fact there wasn’t yet a vaccine.

At least one national poll found parents of color are particularly wary about having their children learn in person as the virus continues to spread.

A survey of 858 parents conducted by the Centers for Disease Control showed that 62% of white parents wanted their children back in classrooms while half of Latino families did and only 46% of Black families felt similarly.

In recent months, parents like Kipp and Rene Gonzalez, who organized the early December rally, question why schools remain closed while bars and restaurants reopen with reconfigured outdoor seating.

Bowling alleys and ski resorts have begun limited operations. Barber shops and salons have also returned to business mostly as usual, albeit with tight limits on the number of workers and customers allowed inside.

Pediatricians have said that when schools take proper precautions, the harm to young children’s academic and emotional development is greater in most cases than their risks of coronavirus.

Gonzalez agrees.

“We were on board with this when we thought it would only be for two weeks,” he said of the school closures. “Every business that has lobbyists has been able to reopen. Who’s lobbying for our students?”

AMONG STRICTEST IN THE U.S.

Oregon is one of 11 states that provide broad benchmarks for school reopenings, research compiled by Education Week shows.

Three states — Arkansas, Iowa and Texas — ordered all of their schools to open by mid-summer. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered schools in the Sunshine State to open Nov. 30.

The other 35 states largely leave reopening decisions up to counties and local districts.

The Oregon Department of Education first announced in July the infection metrics that would determine whether schools could offer in-person. It subsequently tweaked those rules twice to allow greater flexibility, particularly for small rural schools and in counties with small populations.

In most instances, the state requires districts to monitor countywide coronavirus case numbers and positive test rates to determine whether they can open classrooms.

In counties with populations of 30,000 or more, any district can phase out of distance learning and teach students at all grade levels in-person if newly detected infections remain below 50 per 100,000 and test positivity is under 5% for two consecutive weeks.

In-person learning is limited to elementary students if the county exceeds those rates but infections remain below 100 per 100,000 and test positivity does not exceed 8%.

Those new rules, issued in October, are more lenient than an initial rate of an average of 20 new infections per 100,000 residents over two weeks that Oregon set for all students this summer.

Still, most statewide rules for case rates are set far higher than 50 or 100 per 100,000 residents. Kentucky schools, for instance, may offer in-person instruction so long as case rates remain below 25 new infections per 100,000 residents daily, or 350 over two weeks.

Only Arizona has set as picky a threshold as Oregon, while neighboring Washington pivoted this week to allow schools in communities with as many as 350 new cases per 100,000 to remain open.

Raising Oregon’s reopening to more typical levels would have allowed Portland-area schools to reopen to in-person learning this fall, but that would be unlikely now.

Clackamas, Washington and Multnomah counties have seen infection rates averaging nearly five times the state’s loosest metrics for in-person instruction for the last two weeks, nearly 500 cases per 100,000 residents each over the last two weeks, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

In counties with smaller populations, districts may offer in-person instruction for all students if their county sees fewer than 30 total cases for two consecutive weeks. Offerings are limited to elementary students if new cases exceed 30 but remain below 45 over a two-week period.

Counties with more than 15,000 residents must also meet the same test positivity benchmarks as larger ones while those with a lower population count do not.

Under Oregon’s guidelines, about 60,000 students in both public and private K-12 schools have received some sort of in-person instruction since August, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

That means roughly 1 in 10 have physically gone to school.

Governors and state superintendents in other places that established clear infection benchmarks like Oregon’s have provided more autonomy to school districts and local health authorities.

In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered all high school students to learn remotely due to a surge of infections in mid-November but otherwise let school districts decide whether kindergartners on up to eighth-graders should continue classroom instruction.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear similarly ordered middle- and high-school students to attend classes virtually until Jan. 4 while elementary classrooms in counties with 25 daily cases per 100,000 residents or fewer reopened Dec. 7.

Gill said Oregon’s approach to school reopening is designed in part to avoid such stops and starts.

Medical professionals who advise the governor’s office on the state’s reopening plans echoed those sentiments in the days leading up to Gill and Brown announcing newer, relaxed metrics in late October, according to emails obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive through a public records request.

Susan King, the former executive director of the Oregon Nurses Association, wrote Oct. 20 that she supported easing the state’s infection and test positivity benchmarks, the strictest in the nation at the time.

Still, she warned opening schools at a large scale would prove a heavy lift.

“I believe it is going to take many resources to open and stay open,” King wrote. “Going back and forth is not a viable option, in my opinion.”

PROCEDURES EFFECTIVE SO FAR

Gill told The Oregonian/OregonLive that even when coronavirus cases emerge in schools that are open for in-person instruction, strict entry protocols have insulated students and teachers from infection.

The Department of Education’s “safe harbor clause” allows districts that offered classroom instruction in mid-October to continue doing so regardless of an increase in community spread.

In Douglas County, where infection rates shot up from fewer than 30 per 100,000 residents in mid-October to around 240 over the last two weeks, schools that offer in-person instruction haven’t seen a rash of outbreaks.

That’s due in large part to their safety protocols, Gill said.

School staff must screen students and teachers for symptoms of COVID-19 before they enter a building. Students are restricted to cohorts of 20 and must enter school buildings at different entrances.

Students also can’t interact with more than 100 individuals per day, be they bus drivers, teachers or other pupils. And once in a classroom, schools are required to space students so each one has 35 square feet of space.

If a student shows symptoms at any point during the day, they’re to be isolated and monitored until an adult can pick them up.

In Douglas County, “They’ve had multiple cases arrive at schools and they haven’t had a single transmission,” Gill said.

Health officials have not publicly identified any school as a site where the virus was transmitted from person to person, rather than detected in a student or school employee who contracted it elsewhere.

Gill did not say how many cases of COVID-19 Douglas County officials have identified and successfully kept from spreading, referring the question to the Oregon Health Authority.

The agency has not responded to a request for information.

Regardless of how effective building protocols have been in preventing the spread of coronavirus, Gill and other state officials worry further relaxing metrics could lead to an increase in the number of students or employees who show up sick to school and disrupt the rest of their cohort.

If a student with coronavirus makes it into a classroom, every person that pupil interacted with must quarantine for 14 days.

“Every family immediately needs to find child care then,” Gill said. “A two-week quarantine is a real challenge to the stability of the education of our kids.”

Getting teachers into the building in the first place has proven particularly difficult even when infection rates fall below the state’s threshold for reopening. Teachers unions in many communities, including Portland, have stanchly held out against working in person.

TEACHERS WARY

When coronavirus infections in Douglas County fell enough to allow in-person instruction, decision-makers in the rural Winston-Dillard district swiftly moved to open their high school.

Educators at Douglas High pushed back, threatening to call sick en mass in an effort to postpone a return to classrooms for fear of contracting coronavirus.

District officials forged ahead with the reopening, which led to a wave of resignations, requests for substitutes and the sort of fluctuations in instruction Gill said state officials hope to avoid.

The Winston-Dillard district, like others that offer in-person instruction, provides families the option to enroll their children in a virtual academy if they don’t feel comfortable having them enter school buildings.

In the Portland area, only the Hillsboro district launched such an effort and assured families that, even if case counts drop low enough that students can return to classrooms, parents may opt to continue with distance learning through the end of the year if they so choose.

Meanwhile, Portland Public Schools is still hammering out what even a limited return for in-person instruction might look like for a narrow slice of students, those with the highest need for academic support.

Officials there must also contend with a corps of educators largely resistant to return to classrooms.

A survey conducted for the teachers union showed only 14% of the district’s educators currently felt comfortable providing in-person instruction. Should Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties halve their coronavirus infection rates, the number rose slightly to 16%.

All told, Portland Public Schools has about 500 educators willing to return to the classroom in a district of nearly 50,000 students, union negotiators said.

Among the sticking points during negotiations, educators on the bargaining team say they don’t feel comfortable entering a classroom of 20 students, the maximum allowable under state guidelines.

Union President Elizabeth Thiel told The Oregonian/OregonLive that Portland Public Schools must balance education with the needs of its workforce like any other employer.

“If you can’t have 12 people in a board room, why would you have 12 students in a classroom?” she said, pointing to the state’s ban on public gatherings of more than 10 people.

Both district and union negotiators say they feel close to a deal.

Bargaining teams on both sides have agreed that educators won’t be required to provide in-person instruction unless they feel safe doing so. District officials have also conducted walkthroughs with union members to assess building ventilation systems.

EDUCATORS, PARENTS SOMEWHAT ALIGN

Gonzalez, the Southeast Portland parent who organized this month’s rally at Revolution Hall, and the reopening coalition he co-leads have their own list of demands for the governor’s office.

Among them: direct districts to find low-cost ways to improve ventilation in classrooms, issue a statewide mandate that families and educators who feel comfortable returning to school buildings be allowed to do so and prioritize teachers in the state’s vaccination efforts.

The Oregon Department of Education has earmarked $116 million it received in federal aid through the CARES Act to offset the added expenses districts have incurred due to distance learning and reopenings.

Gill said he’s pushing for another $50 million during the coming special session for supplemental assistance, which could pay for upgraded ventilation systems.

Still, students’ physical health is just one of many concerns parents have shared with journalists and educators.

Those who attended the Dec. 6 rally spoke about the toll distance learning was taking on their children in terms of mental health, academic achievement and general motivation to participate in school.

Educators across the state have echoed many of those same concerns, and some have taken to social media to better motivate their students. Some, like Scott School Principal Meghan McCarter in Portland, turned to Tik Tok in an effort to connect with kids.

In the McMinnville district, educators are using humor, some of them peppering their faces with stickers during classroom Zoom sessions in order to keep the mood light and students engaged.

For Kipp, the Lake Oswego mom, the promise of gold stars for Hadley and painting her nails vibrant colors is helping the youngster stay engaged. That, and keeping track of how many visits from the tooth fairy she’s gotten in the last 10 months.

As Hadley trudged through a puddle during the reopening rally, Kipp asked how many teeth she’s lost “since quarantine.”

The 6-year-old raced to her mother and shouted, “Three!”

“It’s a good thing the tooth fairy is an essential worker,” Kipp said.

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