Parents, students and teachers rally in support of opening Oregon schools for in-person classes at the state capitol in Salem on Oct. 5, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Three weeks into the school year, DeLee Brown says too many Salem kids are slipping through the cracks in online school.

Brown is an instructional mentor at Kalapuya Elementary School in west Salem, a teacher whose job is to coach other teachers. Online learning software and district-issued laptops are working "some of the time for most of the kids," she said, but that still leaves many out.

She said some students hide under blankets in class Zoom meetings. One mother who doesn’t have stable housing has to drive her kids to a school parking lot to use the Wi-Fi so her children can attend online classes from the car. A handful of students still haven’t shown up to class, despite a massive effort from school counselors and teachers to reach out.

Brown was among more than one hundred parents, students and teachers who gathered Monday evening on the steps of the Oregon Capitol to urge Gov. Kate Brown and state leaders to loosen the state’s metrics for allowing in-person school. Those gathered said that the impacts to kids’ mental health and education are too great.

“Governor Brown, don’t let our kids sink. Not on your watch,” Brown said while speaking to the group, tearing up as she described the students’ struggles.

The rally was organized by Shalyse Olson, a mother of four Salem-Keizer students. Sister events took place in Bend and Medford. Many of those in attendance Monday said they had students in Salem-Keizer schools, as well as the neighboring Cascade School District in south Marion County.

Sharon Stewart, a mother of four Salem-Keizer students, at a rally to re-open Oregon schools in Salem on Oct. 5, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Sharon Stewart, a mother of four Salem-Keizer students, said her youngest children have trouble focusing on a screen for the majority of their day. She’s a stay-at-home parent but said she still struggled to keep all four on task.

“There’s so much time making sure the technology is working that by the time they get to their lesson, it’s time to move on to something else,” she said.

Speakers said they understood many families and teachers don’t feel comfortable returning to class in-person but said there should be an option for families and teachers who want to attend in-person with health guidelines in place. Many questioned why having kids physically in school is not seen as essential when bars, restaurants and shopping malls are open.

Marion County will be hard-pressed to open schools for any in-person classes under the current state guidelines.

Those guidelines require the percentage of positive Covid tests - a rough indicator of how widespread the virus is in a community - to be below 5% for three consecutive weeks. The last time the county hit that target for a single week was in early June, and Marion County has hovered around 10% since early September.

The county also has too many new cases of the virus to meet another state guideline, which requires no more than 35 new Covid cases to be reported weekly for schools to reopen to all grades, or about 104 cases weekly for kindergarten through third grade. Last week, Marion County reported 244 new cases, and has never been below 207 since the state began tracking school reopening metrics in July.

“If we continue to follow these metrics, it will be years before we are able to come back in for a school meeting,” DeLee Brown said at the rally, drawing cheers from assembled parents and students.

DeLee Brown, a teacher at Kalapuya Elementary School in west Salem, addresses a rally to open Oregon schools at the state capitol on Oct. 5, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Some Oregon schools in rural areas or those with lower Covid case counts have reopened in-person under state health guidelines which require districts to limit  the number of students in a classroom or on a bus.

To date, six Oregon schools operating in-person have reported cases of Covid statewide, according to a Sept. 30 report from Oregon Health Authority. Those schools have reported a total of five cases in students and five in employees or volunteers.

That's among about 229 schools statewide which are currently holding at least some classes in person, according to a list the Oregon Department of Education sent Salem Reporter.

In a Tuesday news conference, the governor did not address the rally directly, but said state health officials would work with superintendents around the state to reevaluate school metrics in the coming weeks and would consider data from other states in their analysis.

“My top priority is to make sure we get our kids back into schools safely,” she said.

Pat Allen, director of Oregon Health Authority suggested that health officials could loosen the rule that Oregon as a whole must have no more than 5% of Covid tests positive before most schools can operate in-person. Loosening that rule could allow schools in some counties to reopen sooner. However it would not make a difference in the Salem area, where the percentage of positive tests has been above the state average since the spring.

SUPPORT ESSENTIAL REPORTING FOR SALEM - A subscription starts at $5 a month for around-the-clock access to stories and email alerts sent directly to you. Your support matters. Go HERE.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.