As schools around the metro area move in fits and starts toward a partial reopening this spring, parents are wondering whether by next fall public schools will be open full-time, five days a week.
The answer, so far: a resounding “maybe!”
State leaders from Gov. Kate Brown on down are “hopeful” for that outcome, Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill told Portland Monthly this week. And that’s also a big reason why there’s been such a concerted push to get schools to open this spring, even though it’s only for two months, so that parents, teachers, kids, and staff can learn how to be on campus in the pandemic era—a practice run, if you will, for reentry next fall.
“This spring gives us the opportunity to show people that it can be done safely,” Gill says. "We have had students in school from the very beginning of this school year, and we’ve seen virtually no transmission in schools. I predict over the next few weeks, we will be bringing in several hundred thousand more students. I think we will be successful, and people will see that it can be done, and that will shift minds and hearts.”
Superintendents across the state have been told to expect masking recommendations to continue into the 2021–2022 school year, particularly given that vaccines won’t be available to ages 12–16 until late summer or early fall at best, and not to the under-12 crowd until 2022.
For the time being, large districts including Portland and Beaverton say a full-time return is essentially impossible at middle and high school because of two key state rules, one requiring six feet of distance between students, and one mandating that a student can encounter no more than 100 people over the course of a day.
Both guidelines are among the strictest in the country, going above and beyond what’s currently recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (which has called for six feet “to the greatest extent feasible), the Harvard Institute for Global Public Health, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, Gill says—and both guidelines are currently under review. Changes to the state regulations are expected early next week and must get sign-off from public health authorities in Oregon as well; Gill says it is “possible” there could be changes this spring, and that he is “very hopeful” the guidelines on cohorting and distancing will be altered by the fall.
For context: Just this week, Massachusetts and Illinois both switched to allow three feet of distancing in schools, after broad studies showed virtually no difference in transmission rates and case levels if students were kept three feet or six feet apart.
So, what else would keep Oregon public schools from returning to full-time school in the fall? The fast-moving coronavirus variants, Gill says.
“We are watching those really carefully. Are they resistant to the antibodies in the vaccine, do they cause more spread among young adults and children, do they tend to cause more severe cases, and do they lead to death?” he says. “That is what overwhelms the system, and would cause things to roll backwards.”
Even if vaccines triumph over the variants, Gill says he expects many schools to continue offering some kind of online learning option, in the fall and beyond. In her executive order on school reopening, formally issued on Friday, March 12, Gov. Kate Brown directed schools to offer a distance learning option, but only through June.
Still, as the pandemic (hopefully) recedes, Oregon’s 197 school districts will regain further control over their systems, as the state guidelines move from requirements into recommendations, Gill says, giving districts more flexibility.
Listen: In this episode of Footnotes, Portland Monthly news editor Julia Silverman talks with Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill about when schools might be able to go back to normal.