PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Governor Kate Brown is hoping to get more Oregon elementary school students back in the classroom by the end of February. On Wednesday, she changed the school metrics used to determine if schools can open to ‘advisory’ rather than ‘mandatory’. That means decisions to resume in-person instruction will be made locally, district by district, school by school.

While the Oregon Department of Education broadly applauded this decision, the president of the Oregon Education Association said this decision creates “uncertainty in a moment when clarity has never been more crucial.”

The change came with her plan to implement several new policy initiatives, including directing state agencies to continue to work with school districts, educators, and communities in decision-making processes grounded in sound science and public health and safety. She said the there is a “goal of preparing more Oregon schools, especially elementary schools, to return to in-person instruction by February 15, 2021.” (Read the governor’s decision at the bottom of this article.)

Governor Brown looked to Washington state’s revised school policies.

“As our neighbors to the north have demonstrated, this does not mean schools can resume in-person instruction without regard for COVID-19 spread in the community, but instead should carefully consider the metrics in their local context, the needs of students and families, and readiness to implement health and safety protocols. As we move into a new year, we must all rise to the challenges that COVID-19 presents and prioritizing our children is most urgent.”

Parents Jennifer Dale and Rene Gonzalez have been advocating to reopen schools for months now. Gonzalez — whose twin daughters and third grade son attend Portland Public Schools — said large districts like PPS still have a long way to go.

“On the one hand this is a win for Oregon families, this is progress. Their voices have been listened to after weeks and months of advocacy,” he said. “There’s still a good deal of work to be done in these big districts to actually allow children in-person and it’s frustrating that there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

‘Move thoughtfully’

Colt Gill, the Director of the Oregon Department of Education, said in a memo to superintendents and principals that even though this is “a key shift in policy…(I)t is critical that this shift is not confused with any release from other requirements of schools and districts in Ready Schools, Safe Learners (RSSL) guidance.”

Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill at a press conference on COVID and schools, October 30, 2020 (KOIN)

He noted how the decision making has progressed over the length of the pandemic.

“In the beginning of the pandemic, the state necessarily took a leadership position by implementing a number of statewide decisions. As we have progressed with our understanding of how to mitigate the threats of COVID-19, many decision points have transitioned to local processes over time,” he wrote.

As districts across Oregon plan to return students to in-person instruction, Gill wants district officials to “move thoughtfully” with their plans.

“As you locally co-construct your plans for a return to in-person instruction, I urge you to make sure your local decision-making process accounts for the fact that updated advisory Health Metrics for Returning to In-Person Instruction may be published later in January.”

A spokesperson for Portland Public Schools told KOIN 6 News they will work closely with both Multnomah County and the ODE as the process unfolds. PPS said they will provide families an update by mid-January on any progress toward a return to in-person learning.

‘Creating uncertainty when clarity is crucial’

The change announced by Gov. Brown did not sit well with John Larson, the president of the Oregon Education Association. He said no one wants students safely back in school more than Oregon educators.

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John Larson, the President of the Oregon Education Association, April 18, 2019 (KOIN)

“But today’s decision by Governor Brown will only result in an increasingly disparate patchwork of return plans throughout the state’s public education system – creating uncertainty in a moment when clarity has never been more crucial,” Larson said.

He said this decision accomplishes neither of Brown’s stated goals to keep communities healthy and safely get students back in school.

“Instead,” he said “Governor Brown will radically and abruptly change the circumstances by which students and educators are brought back into our public schools, with no time for thoughtful input from Oregon’s education stakeholders and with no real plan for rolling these changes out in any type of deliberative manner.”