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Some parents voice concern over Oregon's school reopening plans

A group of parents is asking for more custodians, an outdoor option for in-person learning and good ventilation in each class, among other things.

PORTLAND, Ore. — School districts across Oregon are working fast to make the governor’s deadline for a return to in-person learning.

But with the governor’s executive order still not officially issued, some parents are stuck in limbo wondering about the details.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced school districts will return to hybrid or full in-person instruction starting the last week of March for grades K-5, then grades 6-12 will return later in April.

But for some parents, the governor’s announcement is problematic.

Rashelle Chase is mom to 8-year-old Leo, who is enrolled in Portland Public Schools, and 2-year-old Luna. When she heard the governor’s announcement, she immediately had concerns.

“One of the primary arguments that we had heard from advocates in favor of opening schools immediately is that everyone deserves a choice,” said Chase.

But she said it’s unclear if families will get a choice to stay in distance learning.

She’s got a point. In a press release from the governor’s office, it says “individual students or parents who want to remain in comprehensive distance learning, or who have health needs, may do so.”

RELATED: Gov. Brown orders Oregon public schools to return to in-person learning

But a letter to the Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority said distance learning will be an option “only in defined circumstances," like if a student or family member is in a high-risk category.

“The choice to remain in CDL [Comprehensive Distance Learning] should stay on the table for any family that wants it,” Chase said.

Credit: Rashelle Chase
Rashelle Chase and her family

KGW reached out to the governor's office to clarify. A spokesperson said parents who wish to keep their children in distance learning will be able to do so.

Chase also has equity concerns. Because communities of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, she said it’s possible more kids of color would be distance learning while other more privileged students would be going to school in-person. Her concerns aren’t limited to families of color. She said even medically fragile kids whose family might opt for distance learning would be affected.

“Ultimately what I’m afraid of is we will see children who are white, who are typically developing, who are healthy, who are generally advantaged by most respects returning to the classroom, while children of color, children who have health concerns, children whose families have health concerns, are the ones who stay at home and that opportunity gap that we said we were seeking to remedy just continues to grow," said Chase. "There has to be equity considerations."

RELATED: Parents weigh in on Gov. Brown's executive order aimed at getting kids back into the classroom

In addition, she wonders if teachers will have enough time to figure out their family situations and possible changes to curriculum while also staying safe.

“The timeline seemed so accelerated and so arbitrary,” she said.

Now Chase is waiting for more information and weighing options.

“This is one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make as a mom,” said Chase. “I know there would be benefits to [Leo] going back. I don’t know if any benefit to him going back is worth more than his health and his safety.”

She said her son Leo has cerebral palsy and asthma, they’re a family of color and her husband works outside the home. Those are all things that increase COVID risk.

Credit: Rashelle Chase
Rashelle Chase and her family

“That risk is real, and it’s not a gamble I want to take with my kids,” Chase said.

“We’ve been asking for decision-makers to be listening to communities of color and involving us in the decision-making process and conversations, and this is what happens when you don’t do that," she said. "The problem you’re seeking to solve, you end up exacerbating because it’s not a well-informed decision.”

In an e-mail earlier in the week, Portland Public Schools (PPS) said it was also waiting to get details about the governor’s executive order, and that how the district will respond is still taking shape. In the e-mail, PPS spokesperson Karen Werstein wrote, “A healthy majority of our families, including our families of color, have indicated they want some form of in-person learning this spring. So, based on the science, based on the results, we can move forward -- and we will do so carefully.”

RELATED: Reopening Oregon schools: What your district's return plan looks like

Chase said the issue of reopening schools isn’t binary. Parents largely agree, they want their kids back in school. There’s just disagreement on what constitutes “safe.”

That’s why she and other parents are holding a rally at 3 p.m. on Saturday at Portland Public Schools’ headquarters. Chase said she’s one of the founders of a group called Mom Bloc, which is putting on the rally. The goal of the group is to support the BIPOC community in Portland.

Some of the things the group is asking for include more custodians, an outdoor option for in-person learning, more counselors and wrap-around supports for kids, as well as adequate ventilation that meets CDC guidelines in every classroom.

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