Lucas Gage arrives by bus for the first day of in-person kindergarten at Richmond Elementary on Tuesday, March 2. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Gov. Kate Brown on Friday ordered Oregon’s public schools to resume in-person classes for all students by mid-April, with elementary students returning to buildings no later than March 29.

The order won’t change Salem-Keizer School District plans for in-person classes, district administrators said Friday. The district announced an April 13 start date for middle and high school students to begin two days per week of in-person instruction.

Local elementary school students began in-person classes March 2.

The order comes after Brown’s push to get more school districts to offer in-person classes voluntarily has been largely unsuccessful, even after a controversial decision to prioritize K-12 educators for Covid vaccines ahead of seniors and other essential workers. 

As of Friday, Brown said just 160,325 Oregon students statewide were receiving any in-person classes. That’s less than 30% of Oregon’s enrolled students, according to data from the Oregon Department of Education.

She directed Pat Allen, Oregon Health Authority director, and Colt Gill, the state’s schools chief, to review existing health guidelines and make clear in-person or hybrid classes are preferred “unless extreme rates of community transmission of COVID-19 make comprehensive distance learning necessary.”

“Whether or not public schools should return kids to the classroom this spring is no longer up for discussion: the science and data is clear, schools can return to in-person instruction with a very low risk of COVID-19 transmission, particularly with a vaccinated workforce,” Brown said in a letter to the agency heads. “Our kids are our future and we need to do everything we can to make up for the losses of 2020.”

Schools must resume in-person elementary classes by the week of March 29, and middle and high school no later than the week of April 19.

The health authority and education department should issue new guidance on returning to in-person school by March 19, Brown said.

“Because there is more research today than even a few months ago, this should include a review of requirements that can better facilitate the return of in-person instruction while also reducing the risk of transmission of COVID-19,” Brown wrote.

She did not elaborate on possible changes. Those rules currently dictate the maximum number of students who can be in contact with each other during a school week and the amount of space required per student in classrooms.

Without changes to those state rules, local schools can’t offer more than two days of in-person classes per week, said Sylvia McDaniel, Salem-Keizer’s director of community relations. 

That’s because school classrooms are too small to hold a full class of students while following physical distancing rules. As a result, classes are split in half, with students attending in-person two days and working on assignments at home the rest of the week.

McDaniel said those rules have been the focus of much of the district’s planning as middle and high schools prepare to reopen.

“They had to go to every school and measure the classrooms, which are a lot smaller than the elementary classrooms,” she said.

Even if the state rules change, McDaniel said Salem-Keizer is unlikely to immediately offer in-person classes more days per week. The district has focused on gradually increasing the number of students inside schools to make sure safety protocols are working and Covid isn’t spreading, she said.

For elementary students, that meant bringing kindergarten and first graders back this week, followed by second and third graders beginning March 9, and fourth and fifth graders March 16.

All-online classes will remain an option locally for families who don’t want to return in person. Families can transfer to the district’s EDGE program, an all-online offering which will continue even after the pandemic ends, superintendent Christy Perry said.

About 500 elementary school students transferred in ahead of the return to in-person classes this week, district spokesman Aaron Harada said.

District leaders will hold information sessions for families about resuming in-person middle and high school beginning the week of March 16.

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

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