Oregon education officials recently suspended one of the public health standards for allowing classes inside school buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic. But shelving test positivity rates as a metric didn’t lead to many schools opening their doors, and that measure is expected to return as a required standard, according to Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill.
Tighter rules were not what many parents have been clamoring for, as rallies have sprouted up from Clackamas to Bend in recent days. Hundreds of parents and children who wore masks at a rally outside the state Capitol on Monday held signs pressing for more local control in decisions around online vs. in-person instruction.
Oregon has some of the toughest COVID-19 restrictions in the country, according to a new comparison from WalletHub, resulting in a relatively low death rate compared to other states. That analysis says only seven states have tougher coronavirus rules than Oregon’s, while nearly 40 states have higher death rates.
And when it comes to schools in particular, Oregon’s standards appear tougher than most other states, including Washington. Oregon requires counties to have no more than 10 cases in a week for every 100,000 residents for three weeks in a row in order to have in-person instruction. To open just grades kindergarten through third grade, Oregon allows up to 30 cases per 100,000 residents.
Gill told OPB this week that Oregon officials set metrics for school reopening on what other countries have done to safely resume in-person instruction. According to numbers on other countries collected by ODE, and on states collected by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, Oregon’s required metrics put it in the middle among countries state officials looked at, but among the toughest for states.
At the same time, Oregon parents were pushing for flexibility from state authorities. Gill told OPB’s “Think Out Loud” that his staff had worked with one set of local officials so a Southern Oregon high school could open in-person.
Leaders of the Winston-Dillard School District in Douglas County said they wanted to open their local high school this week, even though the county had not maintained a positive case rate of less than 10 per 100,000 residents.
Gill said the state worked with Winston-Dillard over the weekend on an agreement that would allow some in-person instruction. He said ODE prefers to work with districts on solutions rather than immediately crackdown
“We get into problem-solving mode. We try to connect and work through all the possibilities — and either explain to them that they can’t open, or find a way that they can serve their students in a better way," Gill said.
In the case of Douglas High School, Gill said there’s an existing exception for small, rural schools that fits, because the school are more than 8 miles from its nearest high school, and the district plans to limit attendance to 150 students per day in a “hybrid” learning model. Under Winston-Dillard’s plan, up to 300 students would be at the high school per week, which Gills said meets the small, rural school exception “in a challenging way.” But Gill said state officials were reassured by local public health officials who said there hadn’t had a COVID-19 case in the area since the spring.
But ODE does have punitive steps it can take. Gill said the agency can work with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate and possibly levy fines against schools that flout state requirements. For public schools, there’s a more direct threat.
"The department does have the authority to withhold state school funds to a district that doesn’t comply,” Gill said.
Schools like Douglas High School are the exception in the state. Gill counts roughly just 35,000 students engaged in some type of in-person instruction in Oregon out of public school enrollment in Oregon of 587,000.
At a rally at the Monday rally at the Oregon Capitol, parents and other advocates pressed the state to allow the number of schools teaching in-person to rise if local communities were comfortable with it. Some emphasized giving parents and teachers “choices” so they could attend school in classrooms, or stay home to learn online if they preferred that.
Longtime coach in the Cascade School District, Travis Newton, told the crowd that he was worried about the risks of students learning in isolation away from their communities. He pointed to risks of various kinds of abuse, and threats to students' mental and physical health.
“Having our children at home is much more of a risk to their lives and physical and mental state, than the possibility of getting sick,” Newton said to applause from the crowd.
A number of school districts in the Portland metro area have said they intend to revisit school plans in early November. But unless rules change or COVID-19 rates come down dramatically, the plans are unlikely to change from the current regime of largely distance learning.