Malheur County schools ordered closed by governor as part of statewide move to contain coronavirus

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SALEM – Turning to a “last resort” she hoped to avoid, Gov. Kate Brown Thursday night ordered all Oregon schools closed for at least two weeks to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, affecting 583,000 students from Portland to Ashland, from Coos Bay to Nyssa.

The stunning directive will shutter schools from Monday, March 16, until Tuesday, March 31. Brown said in announcing her decision that students would return to class on Wednesday, April 1.

The order affects 10 school districts in Malheur County with about 5,100 students, ranging from the two students at the Juntura School District to 2,400 in Ontario.

“I have heard from superintendents, school board members, teachers, parents, and students that it has now become impossible to functionally operate schools due to workforce issues and student absences,” Brown said in her statement.

The development will disrupt life not only at schools but in homes and businesses across Oregon as thousands of parents face the prospect of children at home. The closure will be particularly challenging for low-income or homeless families whose children count on free meals from school.

“So many of our families depend on school in order for parents to go to their jobs, and for students to access health care and receive nutrition,” the governor said.

She said she was left with “little choice” but also was blunt that the health threat to Oregonians will persist.

“I want to be very clear,” Brown said. “Sending Oregon children home will not stop the spread of the coronavirus.”

Oregon joins three other states – Michigan, Ohio and Maryland – to order statewide school closures. Another 21 states have closed some schools as federal and state officials deal with what has now been termed a global pandemic.

North in Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered public and private schools closed in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, affecting more than a half million students. They will be closed until April 24.

Portland is the Oregon’s largest school district with 48,500 students and Salem-Keizer is the second largest with 41,770 students.

“Given the seriousness of the current situation, we firmly believe that this decision is the best one we can make given all available information and keeping the best interests of our students, staff and community at the center,” said Christy Perry, superintendent of the Salem-Keizer schools, which will open on Friday, March 13.

Brown acted after local school districts on Thursday decided on their own to close, including Tigard-Tualatin, Lake Oswego and Ashland.

“We understand the hardship this decision will cause for many of our families,” said Sue Rieke-Smith, the Tigard-Tualatin school superintendent in an online statement. “Our board leads this decision with the health and safety of our staff, students and their families as our top priority. We will continue to work to coordinate the services needed for our families that need them at this time.”

Schools in that district, with about 12,600 students, are scheduled to open Tuesday, March 31.

In Ashland, schools serving about 2,800 students also are closed until March 31.

“We are not aware of any cases of COVID-19 in Ashland, and we do believe students are safe in our schools,” said Kelly Raymond, Ashland school superintendent in an online statement. “However, based on the experiences of other communities that have been affected, it is clear that reduced public interaction slows the spread of the virus.”

“It is critical that our students who rely on our public schools for their only reliable nutritious meal in a day continue to receive access to those meals,” said John Larson, president of the Oregon Education Association in a statement. “It is essential the governor’s office release guidance instructing school districts to keep public school employees financially whole during the closing of schools. Oregon’s students and educators should not have to bear the burden of a public health outbreak that is far beyond their control.”

Brown acted just hours after a news conference where she announced state restrictions against gatherings of 250 people or more.

She said then that it was “critically important” for schools to remain open and said she was heeding the advice of public health experts in deciding to leave schools open.

State officials, however, did advise schools to cancel most group activities, including parent-teacher conferences, field trips and school programs. Those restrictions still apply to school systems remaining open.

Brown anticipated the need to close Oregon schools in a letter Wednesday to Vice President Mike Pence that sought federal help on several fronts with money and supplies. Among her requests was a relaxation of federal rules governing meals provided in schools heavily populated by low-income students. She also asked permission for closed schools to distribute food supplies to local food banks.

“This is an important tool to ensure that low-income students and their families who qualified for free or reduced price meals do not go hungry when schools close.”

In her announcement Thursday night, Brown said that “districts are tasked with developing plans to continue nutrition services during the closure.”

Brown also asked for federal help for child care providers “to prevent the collapse of the overall child care business, further depleting the supply of affordable child care in the state.”

She said such providers are “often operating within a small profit margin and are easily susceptible to overall business collapse.”