An empty classroom at Stevens Middle School on Aug. 18, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

This article was updated at 4:06 p.m.

Thousands of Oregon students could be back in school by mid-February after Gov. Kate Brown announced Wednesday that local school districts, not the state, would make decisions about when to send kids back.

Brown said the state’s metrics, which have tied school reopening decisions to the number of new Covid cases reported in each county, would become advisory rather than mandatory beginning Jan. 1. The governor said her goal is for more schools to move students back to regular classroom teaching by Feb. 15, particularly elementary schools.

“The long-term benefits of both heading off an emerging mental health crisis for our children and youth, and addressing the academic challenges that are becoming prevalent for far too many students in the absence of in-person learning, now far outweigh the short-term risk,” Brown wrote in a letter to leaders of the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education.

DOCUMENT: Gov. Brown's letter to OHA and ODE leaders

Some of the 40,000 students in the Salem-Keizer School District could come back into classrooms as early as Feb. 8, the start of second semester, Superintendent Christy Perry said Wednesday, but the district has weeks of work ahead to plan logistics and negotiate with employee unions before any plan is finalized.

She said the district would seek to resume in-person school gradually, starting with the youngest students.

The governor made clear that all Oregonians will play a role in getting schools back to normal after being shuttered by the pandemic since last March.

“The greatest gift we can give to Oregon’s children this holiday season is to redouble our efforts to act responsibly and reduce the spread of Covid-19,” the governor said in her pre-Christmas announcement.

She directed the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education to review the state’s existing thresholds for reopening schools and provide an update if needed by Jan. 19. 

The change moves Oregon in line with 36 U.S. states that have often issued recommendations for when schools should reopen based on Covid case rates, but left decisions to local school boards and health departments. Oregon is among a minority of states that have imposed top-down rules for local districts, according to research by Education Week.

District administrators will begin discussions next week “so we have a sense of where we can head and how quickly we could head there,” Perry said. A public announcement of specific district plans will come in early January, she said.

Currently, state guidelines say schools should remain closed if a county records more than 200 new Covid cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period. Marion County most recently was at 642 cases per 100,000 residents for the two weeks ending Dec. 19, more than three times the limit. Polk County recorded 374 cases per 100,000 residents in the same period.

Though those metrics will become advisory and may be loosened after the mid-January update, Perry said they would still play a role in determining how to move forward.

Brown said the changes are not an invitation for schools to disregard the local spread of Covid when making plans.

“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,” the governor wrote.

Any decision to reopen schools locally would likely require school board approval. It would also need agreement from the two unions representing most district employees, who raised alarm Wednesday at the prospect of heading back into classrooms with the virus as widespread as it is in Marion County.

“Until we’re all vaccinated, how is it going to be safe to coming back in our schools?” said Mindy Merritt, president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association, which represents about 2,000 district teachers. Merritt said the union understands the need to serve students who are not doing well with online school but wants to ensure adequate safety protocols are in place.

The association supported district efforts to hold limited in-person classes in the fall at many schools, something few of Oregon’s largest school districts offered. But Perry decided to scale back those classes in November after local Covid cases began spiking and the union raised concerns about safety.

The union and district had been bargaining about scaling those classes back up starting in January, Perry and Merritt said.

Brown’s announcement Wednesday comes more than nine months after she ordered all schools to close near the beginning of the Covid pandemic. The state then issued rules in late July which allowed schools to reopen if local Covid case rates were deemed low enough to be safe, a bar few of the state’s largest districts cleared.

In recent months, there’s been growing pressure from parents and policymakers in Oregon and nationally to prioritize school reopening as more data has emerged about growing achievement gaps and students disengaging from online classes.

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to re-open schools during his first 100 days in office. That includes a plan to scale up Covid testing with regular rapid tests in school buildings, Politico reported.

At a news conference Tuesday, Brown said teachers and other school workers should be next in line for Covid vaccines, echoing the recommendations a federal advisory panel made Sunday. 

“Our kids need to know they’re number one and that we’re doing everything we can to get them back into our classrooms,” Brown said.

But those vaccines are unlikely to be widely available to teachers before the target Feb. 15 date to reopen schools.

Teachers and other school employees will likely be included in a broad group of “essential workers” and older Americans who would be in line to receive vaccines in early 2021. 

They follow the current effort to first vaccinate health care workers and residents and employees of long-term care facilities. Oregon Health Authority officials have said they expect to vaccinate most people in those groups by the end of January and expect to finalize plans for the next phase by mid-February.

In her letter Wednesday, Brown called on the Oregon Health Authority to work with schools to develop rapid Covid testing to ensure safety before a vaccine is widely available for school employees. She said existing state rules designed to limit the spread of Covid in schools, including requiring masks and keeping students separated into small groups, would remain in effect as schools reopen.

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

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