State changes rules, LOSD to reopen

Grace Goverman, News Editor

In a change from previous policy, Gov. Kate Brown announced that school districts were given the authority to individually decide when students return to in-person teaching at the beginning of 2021. 

Previously, school reopenings were decided by the rate of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents in a county using rules outlined by the state. Beginning Jan. 1, however, school districts are no longer required to follow these guidelines.

“As 2021 approaches and we look to the remaining school year just over the horizon, it is clear that the greatest gift we can give to Oregon’s children this holiday season is to redouble our efforts to act responsibly and reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our communities,” said Brown, announcing the rule change on Dec. 23. 

Superintendent Lora de la Cruz described how hearing the announcement put her in a “very pensive, deeply thoughtful place for a number of days. [Whether and how to reopen] is all a very heavily weighted decision making process, no matter what we decide it’s [a] very heavy weight either way.” 

The district plans to begin reopening with elementary students in February, hoping to build “some fundamental building blocks of learning that need to be established in those early years,” said Cruz. Principal Rollin Dickinson’s Jan. 10 newsletter announced that LOSD is “considering the possibility” of high school students returning to school in March or April. 

Local public health workers, said de la Cruz, reminded her in a meeting that, “the research is showing us that schools have not been shown to be places of COVID spread as long as safety measures are strictly adhered to, and especially elementary schools are proving to be safe places.”  The district will continue working with the local health department. LOSD submitted models and plans for future reopenings in August to the health department for feedback, and the department continues to provide and suggest updates to the plans when needed. No cases of COVID-19 have been transmitted in the limited in-person instruction across LOSD schools. 

“It’s very natural that… some are going to feel excited, some are going to have some anticipatory anxiety, and some are going to feel nervous and scared… I just want to assure students and teachers and staff that we are not cutting corners, we are not moving fast, we are really committed to a slow, gradual, safe expansion of our work of returning students. And, you know, our intention is to provide teachers and staff with whatever safety measures are the most supportive, and also that I don’t take anyone’s health for granted,” said de la Cruz.

The teachers’ union has already negotiated an agreement with the district for what working during reopening will look like for teachers. “We’re actually ahead of most school districts, most school districts don’t have those agreements in place… So real happy about that, that we have a cleaner understanding of what a return is going to look like,” said Gerrit Koepping, social studies teacher and LOEA Bargaining Chair..  

Some teachers and staff, however, worry about personal safety when returning. “I think it makes them more anxious. You know, if I’m worried about getting sick, or if I’m worried about bringing something home to my elderly mother, then… this is going to make me much more anxious, because the state had told us these are the rules, right? If x is met, then y will occur,” said Koepping. “And so now what’s occurred is the state has essentially said, ‘Ah, nevermind, we’re going to essentially completely shift the responsibility to the local school districts’… I’ve heard from teachers who were very concerned about returning. I’ve heard from teachers who are sort of indifferent. I’ve heard from teachers… that online learning is really hard for their kids. I don’t know if it’s representative, but I mostly hear from teachers that are concerned, though.”

LOSD has implemented several changes in buildings to help safety during reopening. All buildings are equipped with advanced ventilation systems, plexiglass for teachers, and PPE for students and teachers to use should they not have their own. They have also worked with local public health departments to create protocols for isolating, quarantining and contact tracing.  

The change came as cases of COVID-19 began to fall after a post-holiday spike. In the weeks since the announcement, however, cases have crept upwards once again. Many hospitals are seeing ICU beds fill, though Oregon has not reached the crisis found in states such as Texas and Oklahoma, where limited hospital staff struggle to care for the influx of patients. 

“In order for us to be able to do this successfully… we must have… support from our community, our families and our students, we need folks in public to be in their masks. We need folks to not be gathering… And so we really need our families and our community to participate along with us to make this successful,” said de la Cruz.