Oregon Governor Ordering Teachers to Return to Classroom

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said Friday she will issue an executive order mandating that all K-12 public schools provide universal access to in-person learning by the month's end for students up to fifth grade and by mid-April for older students.

The state's coronavirus case numbers have fallen sharply in recent weeks. Oregon put teachers ahead of older residents in the line for the COVID-19 vaccine — a decision that angered many people 65 and up. As teachers get vaccinated, Brown has been under tremendous pressure from parents and local elected officials in many counties to reopen schools.

Many teachers' unions nationally have balked at a return to in-person learning, putting them at odds with Democratic governors like Brown in some states.

In neighboring Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee has implored educators to return to the classroom, but most students there are in online classes and the Seattle teachers' union is defying a district plan to return special education students to schools. In Chicago, the teachers' union agreed last month to return to class with expanded access to vaccinations and metrics that will lead to school closures again if case numbers spike.

Under the Oregon order, students in K-5 must have an in-person learning option by March 29. Students in grades six through 12 must have one by April 19. Students who prefer to remain in online class will also have the option.

State education officials have until March 19 to revise their guidelines for in-person instruction to help districts facilitate the return, she said.

In a letter to the state Health Authority, Brown said the "science was clear" and that she was "relieved" that she could bring children back to class.

"I feel so much hope for Oregon's kids, their parents and their schools, as we continue to navigate this pandemic," she said in the letter. "Our kids are our future and we need to do everything we can to make up for the losses of 2020."

Many parents reacted with relief and said the past year had been extremely difficult for their children.

"It's very positive and definitively a step in the right direction — and frankly, it's about time. Clearly, it's been hard for districts to figure out what's going to be best for their students, and it's taken a long time," said Katie Chrisman, who has a child each in elementary school, middle school and high school in the Portland suburbs.

Her children "haven't had a ton of suffering, but they're definitely not thriving — and for me, that's been the biggest concern," she said.

Other parents, as well as some state GOP lawmakers, said more was needed.

Rene Gonzalez, with a parent group called Ed300 that has called for a return to full-time in-person learning five days a week, said teachers' unions have been inflexible and the state education and health officials had set up "insurmountable barriers" for to a return to classrooms for too long.

"We will not rest until every Oregon child has access to five-days-a-week, full time in-person school; until children's co-curricular activities and community life fully return; and until libraries across the state (have) reopened," he said in a videotaped statement.

Data tallied by the state Department of Education show about 20% of Oregon's public schools are already operating with full-time on-site learning, mostly in rural areas with fewer students in the eastern and central parts of the state. Another 23% are offering hybrid learning and 56% currently have almost all distance learning, with limited in-person instruction for students with extra needs.

Rylee Ahnen, spokesman for the Oregon Education Association, the state's largest public school employees union, said in a statement that teachers support returning to the classroom if it can be done safely.

The union understands the frustrations of both school districts and parents, he said, as everyone navigates how to return to class. He added that most districts were already planning to some sort of in-person learning in the coming weeks.

"We hear, understand, and share the frustration expressed by many in our communities about the uncertainty this pandemic has caused for our public education system," he said.

The union represents 44,000 K-12 teachers across Oregon.

Oregon started vaccinating teachers in January ahead of seniors, but the state health department can't say for sure how many educators have been vaccinated because it does not track the profession of recipients. The union also could not say what percentage of teachers have received the vaccine.

Brown said all but six counties in the state currently meet or exceed the advisory metrics for a return to in-person, hybrid learning for all grade levels. Five of the counties that do not yet meet the guidelines for all grade levels make the cut-off for a return to elementary school.

After those dates, all public schools in Oregon will operate either on a full-day of in-person school or a hybrid model, in which students spend parts of the day or some days each week in a classroom setting and other parts of the day or week online. The approach that districts choose will be dictated by COVID-19 case numbers in their county and local decision-making, officials said.

Portland Public Schools, the state's largest district with 49,000 students in 81 schools, was already planning to bring elementary students back in April. It's unclear whether Brown's order will affect that timeline.

The Salem-Keizer School District, the states's second-largest after Portland, announced Friday that it would welcome middle and high school students back to a hybrid model that combines in-person learning and distance learning starting April 13.

Elementary students in the district have already been back in class on a hybrid model.

Elsewhere, California's governor on Friday signed a law aiming to return public school students to classrooms. It offers $2 billion to school districts that reopen physical classrooms by the end of March.