Gov. Kate Brown said she is issuing an executive order that all such schools must provide universal access to in-person learning by the month’s end for students up to Grade 5 and by mid-April for older students.
The state’s coronavirus case numbers have fallen sharply in recent weeks and 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 neighbouring 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.
‘The science is very, very clear’
Under the Oregon order, students in K-5 must have an in-person learning option by March 29. Students in Grade 6 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, Brown said.
“The science is very, very clear: with proper safety measures in place, there is a low risk of COVID-19 transmission in school. Oregon parents can be confident about sending their children back to a classroom learning environment,” Brown said in a statement, after visiting a Portland school.
Data tallied by the state Department of Education show about 20 per cent of Oregon’s public schools are already operating with full-time on-site learning, mostly in rural areas with fewer students in eastern and central parts of the state. Another 23 per cent are offering hybrid learning and 56 per cent currently have almost all distance learning, with limited in-person instruction for students with extra needs.
Rylee Ahnen, spokesperson for the Oregon Education Association, said in a statement that teachers support returning to the classroom if it can be done safely
“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.
California law aims to put kids in class
Meanwhile, California’s public schools can tap into $6.6-billion US in a plan Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Friday to try to pressure districts to reopen classrooms by the end of March.
However, after nearly a year of distance learning for most K-12 students during the coronavirus pandemic, parents in the country’s most populated state say they are frustrated and losing hope their children will see the inside of a classroom this year.
“Is this money going to be a motivator? I don’t know,” said Dan Lee, a father in San Francisco, a city that sued its own school district to reopen classrooms. “We throw money at them, we sue them, we shame them. They still haven’t moved.”
The law does not require school districts to resume in-person instruction. Instead, the state is dangling $2 billion US before cash-strapped school boards, offering them a share only if they start offering in-person instruction by month’s end. The rest of the money would go toward helping students catch up.
“This is the right time to safely reopen for in-person instruction,” said Newsom, who faces a likely recall election this year, fuelled by anger over his handling of the pandemic.
The new law has attracted bipartisan support and scorn in equal measure, with the Democratic governor and lawmakers saying it marked an important step forward but was far from perfect.
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Teachers from some of the biggest districts have come out against it, saying schools can’t reopen until infection rates drop and enough educators have been vaccinated.
Among them is the powerful United Teachers of Los Angeles, whose members were voting Friday to reject what they called an unsafe return for the second-largest district in the country.
This week, the union slammed the reopening plan as “a recipe for propagating structural racism” by benefiting wealthier areas with lower infection rates.
“If you condition funding on the reopening of schools, that money will only go to white and wealthier and healthier school communities,” union leader Cecily Myart-Cruz said in a statement.
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