Local school officials await word on fall classes, content with state’s approach to rural Oregon

State and education officials are satisfied with the state’s announcement recently that Malheur County school districts will independently decide when to reopen schools in the fall, but they remain uncertain how the upcoming school year will look.

On June 2, Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education, wrote a letter in response to two letters from state and education officials that expressed concerns about the state possibly reopening schools at a statewide level, without noting the differences in COVID-19 outbreak severities in eastern Oregon counties or including area schools in the planning.

In the letter, Gill clarified that the decision wouldn’t be made on a statewide or countywide basis due to the differences in coronavirus impacts at the local levels.

State Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, who wrote one of the letters to Gill with state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, said he is generally satisfied with Gill’s response because it opens the doors for the conversation that “a one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work.”

Findley said he subsequently spoke with Gill about “the issues that precipitated us writing a letter and his letter back,” along with the various roadblocks that schools will face reopening in the fall and the guidance that will be coming out from the state agency to help facilitate schools reopening.

Overall, Findley said it was a “good, very positive conversation.”

But Owens said while schools now know that they will be able to reopen, they don’t know whether the format of schools will be remote, a hybrid of in-person and video classes, or completely in-person.

He said there are “a lot of unanswered questions at this time.”

The decision to reopen schools will be made by local districts, but details on how schools will operate will be crafted between school and local health officials following the state’s broader guidance. The state’s directions were expected to be released earlier this week.

Findley said he discussed with Gill concerns that transportation restrictions will “exceed the capability of a district to provide busing transportation for students” due to social distancing. But Findley said Gill told him that not all of the restrictions will be requirements, and that the department will work with schools to figure out what will work best.

“Are we going to open the schools, but then look like we did last fall?” said Findley. “Probably not. But, you know, we have — there is a new normal.”

Findley said he’s satisfied to leave such details to state and local educators.

“My whole thought as it was portrayed that precipitated the letters is that there was not adequate conversation going on between the Oregon Department of Education and the rural school districts,” said Findley. “And he assured me that they were working at that level. So as long as those are going on, we don’t need to get politically engaged in that process.”

Alisha McBride, superintendent of the Vale School District, said she appreciated the clarifications made in Gill’s letter and that decisions for reopening schools will be made at the local level.

“We’re anxiously awaiting that guidance and then we will start reviewing the materials to determine the best way to proceed,” she said.

News tip? Contact reporter Bailey Lewis at [email protected] or at 541-473-3377.

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