As Oregon Locks Down Again, Has the Chance to Open Schools Slipped Away?

Parents have been lobbying, but some fear a return to in-person school is still months away.

By Julia Silverman November 13, 2020

Only a tiny handful of Oregon's public school students have seen the inside of a classroom since mid-March.

An overlooked moment from Gov. Kate Brown’s October 30 press conference—just one in 2020’s string of live-streams at which the governor appeals repeatedly to Oregonians’ better instincts (a message clearly falling on increasingly deaf ears)—merits a double-take.

“We must begin prioritizing getting our students back to the classroom,” Brown said, flanked by Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill.

Let that sink in: Only after seven-and-a-half months of remote learning and well after many other states and entire countries had reopened schools did Oregon’s governor say it was now time to begin prioritizing in-person education.

And now—with daily COVID numbers in the state reaching heights that would have seen unimaginable just a few weeks ago, and Brown sending the entire state back into a de-facto lockdown in a desperate bid to curb cases—parents, kids, and teachers alike are wondering if the window has closed for in-person school in Oregon before it even got a chance to open.

It all feels like deja-vu: After all, as recently as, say, July—the last time cases spiked alarmingly in the state—there seemed to be widespread agreement that there was no safe path to open schools this fall, particularly in the Portland metro area, though some public schools in more rural counties where case numbers were low have been open since September.

Back then, the Oregon Education Association—the public employee union that has been one of the largest donors to the governor’s campaign, including a $190,000 gift in 2018—made it plain that they did not want their members returning to classrooms. Districts that had been planning since May for hybrid education—a mix of in-person and virtual education—bowed to inevitability, shifting to virtual only by early July.

And then, around about late September, in the halcyon days when Oregon case numbers were falling or leveling off, came a pronounced shift, spurred on by an accumulation of data from around the world. The word came in from New York City and Germany and South Korea and elsewhere: schools were not, for the most part, super-spreaders. 

Isolated outbreaks grab headlines, but assuming that proper safety measures are followed—including mask wearing, distancing and hand-washing—outbreaks have by and large not been traced to schools.

"The data seems pretty clear,” says Dr. Alex Foster, an assistant professor of pediatric medicine at Oregon Health and Sciences University. “If you are taking precautions, around masks primarily, you can have school with relaxed physical distancing. There are examples in which they have (elementary-aged) children at some distance, not exactly six feet, and that’s not showing dramatic case counts or spikes as a result.”

Meanwhile, virtual education is taking a toll on students and families. From Salem, the state’s second largest school district, comes word that half of high school students are failing at least one class, three times higher than expected levels. Studies showed that students from historically underserved communities—among them Black, Latino and Indigenous kids—disproportionately lacked access to high-speed internet connection, leaving them at real risk of being left far behind. 

Regardless of background, just about anyone with kids can attest to the negative effects of loneliness and isolation on children’s mental and emotional health. And story after story has documented that it is women who are dropping out of the work force in droves to manage virtual learning at home—wiping out decades of hard-won professional gains.

Moreover, in Portland, total school enrollment is down by about 3 percent, which works out to more than 1,500 students (or more than $15 million in per-pupil state funding), with highest enrollment declines at kindergarten and first grade. 

Armed with this data, a new group entered the fray this fall: parents. Traditionally, parents as a bloc don’t have much of a voice in state affairs—they don’t give the kinds of dollar amounts that come from the OEA or from the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association, which has successfully helped keep bars and restaurants open to reduced-capacity indoor dining, even as other states/countries experiencing COVID spikes have shut them. 

Speaking out is a high-wire balancing act, said Rene Gonzalez, a Southeast Portland resident, the parent of three school-aged kids and one of the co-founders of Open PDX Schools, a rapidly growing Facebook group that’s now linked up with other parent-run groups around the state.  In progressive Portland, maskless rallies at the Capitol, bashing Brown, and pushing back against the teachers’ union won’t get you far among Red for Ed loyalists, Gonzalez said. But amplifying emerging science and data? Around here, that goes a long way.

“We were stuck,” Gonzalez said. “If you talk about advocating for schools, the way the political dialogue went, you are a Trumpeter. This is a difficult dialogue to have with our peers. And there was a lack of urgency in the city of Portland to address it.”

Instead, they’ve focused on the data, which didn’t exist back in March, or even in July, and does increasingly suggest that schools aren’t super-spreaders. Further, Gonzalez says, keeping schools closed might have terrifying longterm implications for the fabric of the city. 

That’s because Portland’s “capture rates”—the percentage of eligible kids who attend public school, rather than splintering to a private alternative—are historically higher than in most cities around the nation. But the longer this goes on, Gonzalez says, the more people will seek out alternatives, removing not just per-pupil funding from schools but also families who volunteer time and money.

“If we can’t solve public schools, there are people that will give up on cities and give up on Portland,” he says. “If you can’t make the city attractive to live for folks with kids, you really do change the flavor of the city.”

Suddenly, the inboxes of the members of the Healthy Schools Reopening Council, convened by Brown as an advisory group, were filling up with letters from parents who were getting organized, written by groups like Gonzalez’s, Clack to Schools in Clackamas County, and others around the state. They pointed to school systems elsewhere in the country, from New York City to New Orleans. If they could do it, why not Portland?

Against a deluge of data, and under intense parent lobbying, Brown cracked open the door at that October 30 press conference—but not very wide. She loosened metrics for schools reopening, yes, but metro area counties aren’t even close to qualifying for the revised rules—and that was before the recent spike in cases that led to a two-week return to lockdown in most of the state, a freeze that will be at least a month long in Multnomah County.

In response, Gonzalez and other parents have argued for more local control over the when-to-reopen decision—“guidelines” from the state, as opposed to the gatekeeping approach, with the final decision left to school boards and district administrators.

Of course, like any interest group (look no further than Hispanic voters in the 2020 election for proof of this), parents aren’t a monolith. Joelle Murray, parent of a sixth and ninth grader at Portland Public Schools, says she would like her kids in school as soon as its safe and equitable—and she doesn’t think either of those conditions are present now. If schools reopen now, she says, wealthier schools will be more likely to fundraise for the air purifiers, HEPA filters and other items that can increase airflow and air quality in a classroom; less well-off schools won’t be so lucky. 

“I personally am largely okay with letting the teachers set the tone for this, because they are the ones in the classroom with our kids,” Murray says. “They are the ones that have to do all the things to keep everybody safe.”

Jennifer Dale, a “Clack to Schools” founder and Lake Oswego mother of three, including a daughter with special needs whom she says became virtually invisible to the friends she’d worked so hard to make in school once the lockdowns hit, says that as a certified public accountant, and a self-proclaimed “bleeding conservative,” she’s sympathetic to those who have pushed to keep Oregon’s economy open. But she’s struggling to square the state’s permission in September and October for indoor dining and drinking at restaurants, bars, casinos, and bowling alleys with the closed schools—especially given that new evidence based on cell-phone data shows that 80 percent of COVID transmission from last spring could be traced to restaurants, bars, gyms and other indoor venues. 

“I feel terrible—people need their jobs, careers, and identities,” she says. “But schools have to be first.”

Teachers, meanwhile, doubled down after Brown’s press conference. In an email sent to their membership, the Portland Association of Teachers took Brown to task for the relaxation in metrics, writing, “We are disappointed and alarmed that the state of Oregon has decided to relax the metrics that have successfully kept COVID-19 rates low, just as the case count across the state is surging. This sends the wrong message, and puts community health at risk.”

In many ways, this debate revolves around whether teachers are essential workers or not. The unions argue that since their members can do their jobs virtually, they should stay home—school, they say, is not daycare. 

But Gill, from his position at the helm of the Oregon Department of Education, is pushing back on that narrative ever so gently: “This is a time when the world is going back to work,” he told reporters in late October. “So people in communities across Oregon are going back to work. Our grocery stores are open. Our restaurants are open. Our health care facilities and our front line emergency care workers have been working through the pandemic and many of them also have elevated risk levels. If we do it with the proper protocols in place, we can reduce risk, and we can keep the safety and health of our students and staff at the forefront.”

Worth noting too: Oregon’s preliminary plans for COVID vaccine distribution do classify teachers as essential workers, meaning that they could be among the first in the state—alongside health care workers—to get access to a vaccine in the coming months.

Still those “proper protocols” Gill mentions are key. Schools received $109 million in CARES Act funding, Gill says: though spread across 197 school districts, that funding was also supposed to cover associated distance learning costs, including Chromebooks and wifi hotspots, alongside basic supplies like touchless thermometers, extra masks, and hand soap. How much work has actually been done to improve ventilation at aging schools is unclear.

For now, says Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, who is also a PPS parent, there’s been little transparency about how much preparation school districts are actually making for a return to the classroom, including planning for smaller cohorts and improving ventilation. Meieran, an emergency room doctor, was among the earliest voices pressing for Brown to shut down schools in the spring.

Now she says, based on the data coming in from around the world, “perhaps we could begin looking at reopening”—but that it’s not clear Oregon made the right decisions, soon enough, in order to reopen that particular window.

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