State to cede to local school districts decisions on how to run in the fall, state leader says

Malheur County school districts will independently decide when and how to reopen schools for the 2020-2021 school year, according to a new letter from Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education.

Gill said the state won’t mandate statewide practices because of “the differing circumstances in each district” relating to the severity of COVID-19 outbreaks.

“These individual plans will necessarily look different from community to community, as each district in Oregon serves diverse communities with distinct strengths and needs, has unique physical structures, includes different staff make-ups and local bargaining agreements, has experienced varying degrees of impact from COVID-19 outbreaks, and has access to various levels of readiness to respond to an outbreak,” Gill said in the letter.

On March 13, Oregon public school buildings closed due to the coronavirus pandemic and have not reopened. Instead, schools finished out the year with distant learning, with students working from home and teachers in touch online.

Since then, school officials have been waiting for guidance from the state on what would be the conditions of returning to school this fall. The Oregon Department of Education is expected to announce those guidelines on Monday, but Gill made clear that it would be up to local districts when to return to school buildings or how to otherwise serve students.

Decisions to reopen schools will now be made by school districts in “coordination with the local health authority and under guidance from both the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and the Oregon Department of Education (ODE),” Gill said.

“For example, if there were to be a significant COVID-19 outbreak in Vale, it wouldn’t necessarily impact school closures in Nyssa,” Gill said in the letter.

Gill’s four-page letter dated Tuesday, June 2, addressed concerns raised in earlier letters by local educators and Malheur County’s two legislators, state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and state Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane.

In letters May 22 from the Malheur Education Service District and May 27 from Findley and Owens, Gill was questioned about a sense that the state would impose guidelines without regard to differences between urban districts and rural schools in eastern Oregon. The letters said it appeared eastern Oregon districts were being left out of work groups designing the state’s guidelines and that local authorities didn’t know about a survey being conducted by the Education Department.

Gill said school executives from rural Oregon had been involved in the work groups.

Regarding the small group meetings with superintendents, Gill said the groups don’t make “statewide policy decisions” and are “meant for receiving input and exploring challenges we are all facing” and “give the state great insight.”

Gill specifically referred to two groups his agency has met with. One includes school officials from La Grande and Baker County and superintendents across the state who represent very small, small and medium-sized school districts. Gill said Mark Redmond, superintendent of the Malheur ESD, attended one of the meetings.

The other group, Gill said, is hosted by the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators and that group includes Alisha McBride, Vale School District superintendent.

Gill also addressed confusion regarding a survey that was not received by eastern Oregon school districts, saying that the Education Department didn’t send out a survey. He explained that the agency receives many emails about the upcoming school year and responds to those emails “with a request for the writer to enter their ideas, questions, and concerns into a form” so agency officials have one place to review comments.

However, parents who emailed the agency began distributing the form over email and social media, which was “unknown to us until superintendents let us know about it.” Gill said the ODE has added the form to its website.

“The form has never been broadly distributed by ODE, it remains a tool to capture ideas shared to us via email,” Gill said in the letter.

Gill noted in his letter that he has been an educator in Oregon for more than 30 years, has worked with some superintendents in Owen’s House district and was “disheartened” by the misunderstandings that have taken place, which he attributes to his efforts to be transparent and “share up-to-the-minute information with superintendents and other partners.”

“I have traveled to ESDs and districts in your region each year of my short tenure at ODE, and I’m committed to continue that effort and will come with an open mind and open ears to better understand how we can serve together,” Gill said in the letter.

News tip? Contact reporter Bailey Lewis at [email protected].


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