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Gov. eases virus school restrictions, urges February reopen

December 23, 2020 GMT

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Gov. Kate Brown has set a target date of Feb. 15, 2021, for when more Oregon students, especially elementary level, will return to in-person learning.

The governor also announced Wednesday that beginning Jan. 1, 2021, the current statewide mandatory metrics for schools to reopen to students will be advisory and that “decisions to resume in-person instruction must be made locally, district by district, school by school.”

“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,” Brown said. “Our students’ learning, resilience, and future well-being depend on all of us.”

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In an attempt to meet the target date the governor has directed the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority to implement several new policy initiatives, which includes on-site rapid testing and prioritizing teachers and school staff in the state’s next round of COVID-19 vaccinations.

“As we continue to work toward stemming the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, getting our teachers and school staff vaccinated will help ensure we are making learning environments as safe as possible,” Brown said during a press conference Tuesday.

Earlier this week lawmakers also played a part in the step towards students’ returning to in-person learning by voting in favor of a bill that protects schools from some coronavirus-related lawsuits.

“This bill is a needed first step to get schools reopened. Education for Oregon kids needs to be prioritized,” Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod said.

The health authority and Department of Education will review the current metrics and announce updated guidelines before Jan. 19, 2021.

Based on data from the state’s education department, in early December around 9% of Oregon public school students have returned for in-person school or a hybrid schedule, a result largely of stringent metrics set by Brown, for school reopening.

Initially, schools weren’t eligible to reopen their buildings, with some exceptions, unless the state’s positivity rate remained for three consecutive weeks below 5% — a number the state has not met since early July.

New reopening metrics were announced in October, allowing counties to transition toward in-person learning once they have fewer than 200 new infections per 100,000 residents. But still, state officials said only about 20% of Oregon students would be eligible for in-person learning.

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Since the start of the school year there has been a state statewide movement of parents calling for children to return to school in Oregon, which is one of only a handful of states that has required at least a partial closure of schools as long as local coronavirus infections remain above certain levels.

The movement gained substantial traction as parents organized protests across the state, including one at the state Capitol in October that drew hundreds of people. They have submitted petitions with thousands of signatures, posted anecdotes on social media and written to state officials.

Most recently the coalition of parent groups demanded that Oregon officials remove statewide barriers to in-person learning by Jan. 6 — the 300th day since the vast majority of students were last in a classroom.

On Wednesday Brown said while schools must continue to adhere to required health and safety protocols — when it comes to the local decision making process on whether or not schools reopen, teachers, school staff, parents and students should be engaged in this decision-making process.

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Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.