PORTLAND, Ore. — Teachers and school district leaders have been waiting for more guidance from the Oregon Department of Education on in-person learning. On Tuesday, they got it.
Here are some of the changes. First, the state lowered the threshold to meet for elementary students to return to in-person learning.
The new ODE guidance allows for higher case levels in a community than before.
For instance, before the update, for schools prioritizing on-site and distance learning, there could be between 50 to 100 cases per 100,000 people in a county. In the updated model for a similar category, there could be between 50 to 200 cases per 100,000 people.
ODE said the changes are based off recommendations from the Harvard Global Health Institute.
Also, if there's any in-person learning in an area that does not meet those recommended health metrics, there has to be on-site testing for symptomatic students and staff.
ODE guidance said schools should work toward in-person learning on a two-week timeline, starting after the most recent county health metrics are announced each Monday.
And for students who refuse to wear a mask or if they have family members who don’t want to wear a mask out of choice, distance learning will be the only option.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown is allowing schools and districts to determine for themselves how and if they’ll start in-person learning.
Parents who've been in support of reopening schools said they're encouraged by the updated guidance.
"Parents are encouraged by the revisions that permit the state's youngest learners to return to in-person learning in both hybrid and full-time models," said Jennifer Dale and Rene Gonzalez in an email. The two women are co-founders of ED3000, a group that advocates for in-person learning. "However, concerns remain about the slow pace of returning middle and high school students to in-person learning, sports and co-curricular activities, even in the face of mounting evidence that these students are struggling with social and emotional isolation and other issues."
In the meantime, teachers we've spoken to have pushed back against the idea of in-person learning, especially if they'd have to go back without a vaccine.
Last week, teachers in the Tigard-Tualatin School District said going back to in-person learning, even if it is limited or in a hybrid model, feels rushed.
“We want to be vaccinated. We’re right there. The ship is sinking, there are life rafts, but we have some parents that want us to jump in the water," said Scott Herron, president of the Tigard-Tualatin Education Association. "When, let’s go ahead and make it safe for everyone."
Even if teachers are vaccinated, Herron said there are still unknowns that are causing anxiety among teachers.
“The point being brought up over and over again by teachers is one, ‘can I still be a carrier? Am I gonna take it home and get my husband sick,'” said Herron.
He and other teachers in his district are watching other districts closely. Some, like the Lake Oswego School District and Portland Public Schools, has announced dates on which they hope to begin limited in-person instruction.
“There’s going to be a ripple effect because when parents in one district see what’s going on in another, saying why isn’t that happening,” Herron said.
He said e-mails from parents have been rolling into the district.
“Every time they get an e-mail of someone saying, ‘Put the kids back in. The teachers are lazy’, they get an e-mail saying, ‘Don’t put the kids back in. It’s not safe. Why are we going back now,'” said Herron.
The Tigard-Tualatin School District has not released a date as to when it wants to start limited in-person instruction.
Traci Rose, spokesperson for the district said the district has been waiting on the new guidance from ODE.
“We are being very mindful of the ever-changing environment around state guidance and vaccine distribution as we work in partnership with our associations and staff to make decisions to begin both LIPI (limited in-person instruction) and identify reentry for elementary students,” said Rose in an e-mail.
Teachers say they’re worried they won’t have enough time to get acquainted with safety protocols.
“We’re already working full time. We’re maxed out. We are maxed out. So it’s kind of hard for us to now say, ‘alright let’s change it all up and move into the next stage,” said Bettina Megowan, a first-grade teacher in the Tigard-Tualatin School District.
Megowan is usually a P.E. teacher, but at the beginning of the school year was switched to teach first grade because she said there was a need to keep classes smaller.
She said at this point, many teachers have established routines and the younger kids need consistency.
Megowan and her fellow teachers say it won’t be easy breaking the new routine.
“I’ll liken it to trying to turn the Titanic around in the Tualatin River," said Andy Maddams, sixth-grade language arts and social studies teacher in the district. "It’s going to be a multi-step turn and it’s going to take time."
The teachers we spoke with said they also want to make clear to parents that kids going back to in-person learning won’t be the same as it was before COVID-19.
“I mean your kid is going to be in a mask," said Lindsay Edison, a TTSD first grade teacher. "They’re gonna have to stay at their desk. We’ll have rigid times where they can use the bathroom. We won’t be able to do carpet time and reading time. All the things the kids really love and the kids really enjoy about school will be changed."
Edison said with more kids starting to begin some kind of in-person instruction, it would be helpful if parents talk to their kids about what in-person school might look like during the pandemic.
For instance, talking to kids about what to do if they want to hug their friend but can’t.
“We should be staying the course until we can be more normal,” added Shelly Orchard, a kindergarten teacher who has been teaching for 33 years.
Orchard said, especially with younger kids, it’s imperative she’s able to be physically closer to them.
“If a kid’s across the room and they’re boo-hooing behind a mask and maybe even having a potty accident, and I’m not allowed to be near them, that is dehumanizing. I have to be able to console a child […] and I can’t do that from six feet away,” she said.
The teachers said they have faith in their district leaders and are working closely with them. The Tigard-Tualatin School District plans to have more information on its plans later this week, taking into account ODE’s new guidance.
ODE said if there is any level of in-person learning, kids have to wear masks, keep socially distant, frequently wash their hands, along with more than 160 other health requirements to keep COVID-19 from spreading.