PORTLAND, Oregon — Beginning this week, individual school districts and schools in Oregon can decide whether to go back to in-person learning.
Two days before Christmas, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown wrote a letter to Oregon Department of Education (ODE) and Oregon Health Authority (OHA) directing them to implement new initiatives that put more students back in the classroom.
Gov. Brown said the state's school reopening guidance is now a recommendation instead of mandatory. The announcement garnered both praise and backlash.
On Sunday, those against resuming in-person learning put up 500 flags outside various school district offices, symbolize the 500+ educators and children killed by COVID-19 nationwide. (To reach the 500+ number, organizers say they added children/student deaths to educator deaths, subtracting former and retired educators.)
Available data does not show where the educators and students who passed away contracted COVID-19. It's unclear if any contracted the virus while at school or in the community.
The flags memorialize lives lost this past year while encouraging Oregon schools not to re-open in-person learning until COVID-19's wrath eases.
"We can recover from distance learning," said Ami Fox, a Portland Public Schools teacher and parent. "These [flags] represent the fallen educators and students- they don't get to come back from this, ever."
"Online learning is really hard but, for me, it's worth the work as long as my students are safe," Julisa Rodriguez, a third-fourth grade teacher in Salem-Keizer School District, said.
"I believe if districts cave it's going to be a lot worse," Ari Bubbett, whose first-grader experiences disabilities, said. "My kid can catch up but he can't catch up if he catches coronavirus and dies."
They, too, worry about the toll the pandemic and isolation takes on kids.
"It's been absolutely horrible. Yes, my kids' mental health is suffering and I am terribly worried about them, as are all parents," Lee Ann Moldovanyi, a parent of two Portland Public Schools students, said. "But opening schools is not the solution to that."
By leaving it up to each school district to decide, Gov. Brown hopes more schools - especially elementary schools- will move to in-person learning by Feb. 15.
She asks districts to weigh local COVID-19 metrics, the needs of students and families and their ability to implement safety protocols. Gov. Brown wants educators and school staff to be considered essential and vaccinated in Phase 1B of Oregon's COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
Teachers and parents with the coalition Oregon Safe Return to Campus want to wait until that happens.
"Our teachers have the most important job on earth and to put their lives at risk before the staff and students are fully vaccinated is terribly unfair to them," Moldovanyi added.
"The harm that it will do to our community, to the families, if we reopen without safety measures in place, without a vaccine to protect people, without proper ventilation - those numbers are going to be our flags here in our community," Fox said, pleading with school district officials, "So I’m begging you to be brave under the pressure."
However, many support the governor's call.
"This is cause for celebration. This is a holiday present for Oregon families," Rene Gonzalez, a parent and advocate for reopening in-person learning, told KGW after the governor's announcement. "The needle moved here because parents and educators worked together to focus on the impact of closures on their children."
Many have rallied in different parts of the state, urging state leaders and school districts to reopen classrooms.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children make up a total of .07% of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States and .01% of all child cases result in deaths. In Oregon, there have been zero child deaths due to COVID-19.
AAP says it appears severe illness from COVID-19 is rare in children/students but "there is an urgent need to collect more data on longer-term impacts of the pandemic on children, including ways the virus may harm the long-term physical health of infected children, as well as its emotional and mental health effects".
KGW reached out to several local school districts and heard back from a handful on Sunday. Generally, they plan to stay in Comprehensive Distance Learning this coming week or for the next couple weeks.
District officials, school boards and staff will meet to come up with timelines once staff gets back from winter break. They also plan to meet with public health authorities and ODE.
Beaverton School District
Beaverton School District will discuss the matter once they return from winter break this week. Get the latest information from Beaverton School District here
David Douglas School District
The district school board previously decided to stay with distance learning through at least Jan. 28. A district spokesperson says they haven't had an opportunity to "discuss the implications of the Governor's announcement" but will likely address it this week. Get the latest information from David Douglas School District here
Hillsboro School District
A spokesperson says detailed communication with staff and families won't be released until Jan. 13 after they've had a chance to meet with the governor’s office, ODE, unions, public health officials and its school board. Get the latest information from Hillsboro School District here
Hood River County School District
Hood River leaders are meeting this week and have a call with ODE. It will update its community after the meetings should news warrant it.
HRCSD will keep working with the county heath department to determine timing of returning to in-person learning. A spokesperson says it will also continue to "use the general metrics as a guide post".
The district plans to offer limited in-person instruction to students who need additional help with attendance, behavior, and/or academics during Comprehensive Distance Learning. Get the latest information from Hood River County School District here
North Clackamas School District
North Clackamas spokesperson Jonathan Hutchison says the district is actively developing a revised strategy but does not have imminent plans that they have shared with families yet. Get the latest information from North Clackamas School District here
Parkrose School District
Parkrose Superintendent Michael Lopes Serrao said in a statement to KGW:
The Governor's recent decision about moving to advisory metrics does not change the requirement for schools and districts to follow Ready Schools/Safe Learners safety protocols and guidance from the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education. The metrics are advisory and will still have an influence on our community, students, staff, and school board. The community spread of COVID is still significant and does impact our decision making.
Our district has established plans for returning to in-person 'hybrid' instruction, but we have not determined when that will happen. I would recommend you review the Ready Schools Safe Learners guidance to see the logistics that districts must follow to reopen for in-person instruction. Our board meets on Monday, January 11th to discuss the possibilities.
Portland Public Schools
A spokesperson for Portland Public Schools (PPS) says they will continue to remain in contact with Multnomah County and ODE about reopening. They want educators and school staff to have access to vaccinations before in-person learning resumes. PPS will update families and the community by mid-January on their plans. Get the latest information from Portland Public Schools here
Salem-Keizer School District
Salem-Keizer says it'll be in discussions the next two weeks regarding re-entry based on the governor’s directives. The district is meeting with local health authorities and ODE as its goal is to welcome kids back safely.
"We are also waiting for the updated Ready Schools Safe Learners guidelines to be out by Jan. 19—this will help us to further solidify our COVID protocols that we have had in place since last spring. Meanwhile, we are still moving forward with limited-in-person instruction and secondary sports," district spokesperson Sylvia McDaniel wrote in an e-mail.
Tigard Tualatin School District
District officials will meet Monday and Tuesday as it they continue to build out their plans. They plan to share an update by the end of the week.
West Linn-Wilsonville School District
The West Linn-Wilsonville School District plans to work collaboratively with parents, staff and health professionals on a timeline to reopen school using a hybrid (A/B rotation) model and the updated school guidance from ODE.
They plan to give families more information later in the week after staff return to work. Get the latest information from West Linn-Wilsonville School District here
Editor's note: This story was updated to say "children" instead of "students", although opponents use the words interchangeably when referring to child deaths in the U.S.