Some Oregon superintendents, parents report ‘whiplash’ as state school reopening rules change again

Salem-Keizer superintendent Christy Perry talks during a virtual school board meeting on Tuesday, April 14. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

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Salem-Keizer Superintendent Christy Perry was preparing for a school board meeting Aug. 11 when she got the email from the Oregon Department of Education. 

Perry, who leads Oregon’s second-largest school district, was expecting the latest state guidelines for returning to school. She thought they’d include more detail about how federally-funded education programs and special education services would operate with classes held remotely.

But there was a surprising wrinkle. Schools would now be allowed and even encouraged to bring some students into buildings in small groups for schooling or services that can’t be offered remotely, like speech language pathology, career technical education or help learning English.

It was a 180-degree turn from two weeks earlier, when state officials said schools couldn’t hold any in-person class unless counties reported fewer than 30 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents – a target most of Oregon’s largest counties were nowhere close to meeting.

“All of a sudden I went ‘Oh, wait a minute, stop, they changed the metrics,’” Perry said.

Emails began flying between Perry and other Salem-Keizer leaders, who had less than four hours before a public presentation on their plans.

“I think that was their attempt to make it better for kids, but in this world where we’re getting ready to start school and help parents really know what the plan is and help communicate with parents, that just makes it really hard,” Perry said.

With less than a month to go until most Oregon schools begin the new school year, some superintendents are expressing frustration with the state’s ever-changing guidelines for whether and how they can operate in person, which make it difficult to let parents, teachers and other employees know what to expect.

The Oregon Department of Education said in July that schools couldn’t open period unless statewide positive testing rates stayed below 6%. Then it revised the rules, making exceptions for students with special needs such as those with disabilities or learning English as a second language and for schools in remote areas or with low population density.

Many rural superintendents applaud the changes, which came partly in response to their pleas not to preclude physical reopening of their small-town and remote schools based on broader countywide or state coronavirus caseloads.

In Oregon’s largest district, officials are still negotiating what a return to physical classrooms will look like with the union representing its teachers. The state’s changing directives aren’t a huge disruption in large Portland area districts, because Portland Public Schools, like others in the metro area, have said children won’t receive any in-person instruction until at least November.

But for superintendents who are experiencing a sense of whiplash, it is the fact that they have gotten very little advance warning of the changes that compounds their worry over keeping teachers, parents and others confident that school leaders know what they’re doing.

Rural school leaders welcomed the latest change, which allows many smaller districts to resume in-person schooling if there are few cases of the virus in the immediate area.

Many had pressed state leaders for more flexibility. But those leaders felt similar frustration in late July, after Gov. Kate Brown announced metrics so strict that only Wheeler County schools would be able to operate in-person unless coronavirus cases subsided.

Tucked away in far southeast Oregon, Jordan Valley School District saw itself do a full 360 in the past few weeks. Its leaders spent the summer planning on returning all students to classrooms in the fall. But when the state’s late July rules came out, the district, which serves fewer than 60 students and sits 70 miles from the nearest town, learned it would have to find a way to teach via distance learning while combating the ultra-remote nature of southern Malheur County. 

Two weeks later, Jordan Valley Superintendent Rusty Bengoa said the district was able to pull its old plans out of the trash can, as the new rules released Tuesday mean its students will likely be able to return to classrooms after all. 

The district falls under new exemptions in the state’s plans, which allow districts with fewer than 75 students to open so long as the virus isn’t spreading in the community the school serves.

“It’s been difficult,” said Bengoa. “To plan most of the year to go in-person, then to be tied to the county like that, it’s just frustrating. You get a curveball thrown at you. It’s just hard.”

Bengoa said he does appreciate the help that the schools have gotten from the state this summer, saying he knows that the state education department and the state’s school activities league have been working nonstop.

“This whole COVID deal has made things so unpredictable,” he said. 

That frustration has boiled over to many parents and other community members.

“It is great that the governor keeps taking steps towards prioritizing elementary and rural schools, but she is giving us whiplash,” Nyssa parent Zach Olson said.

Bengoa said he has heard from many people who are upset that he is unable to answer their questions about reopening. 

“It’s not that we’re not communicating things. But things change so fast now,” he said. “I appreciate the communities and the patience … I hope this (latest set of rules) sticks around for a while.”

State schools chief Colt Gill said the education department talks weekly with superintendents and works to adjust plans based on their feedback.

“I sit side by side with our superintendents around the challenges it creates, but this effort to provide in person instruction really came out of our meetings with superintendents,” Gill said.

The change to allow small groups into schools for services such as special education came after Oregon Health Authority officials reviewed guidelines for childcare and early learning facilities, which have been operating since March under health guidelines with few cases of the virus statewide. It seemed inconsistent to let 4-year-olds statewide learn in person but not allow any school-aged youth with special learning needs get the same type of support.

Gill said as school beings in the fall, the department will continue evaluating what’s working to try to get as many students as possible into classrooms without compromising public health. Pediatricians and other child advocates have said children’s well-being is harmed when they can’t have in-person learning experiences and eat school meals, so they want public officials to balance those risks, not insist on zero coronavirus cases before children can get back to school.

“The idea is again public health first, trying to ensure that we’re safe and that we don’t overtax our health systems,” he said. “What we don’t want to do is have all the schools open at once when we have broad community spread.”

The largest school district in Malheur County, Ontario, was preparing a return to school via distance learning until at least October before the state released its metrics-based guidance in late July. 

Ontario Superintendent Nicole Albisu said the district was already bracing for not being able to return to classes in the fall, as Malheur County has a weekly positive test rate of 25% — five times the allowable limit.

“Changes are inevitably frustrating, especially when we are asked to completely reorient our daily practices and procedures,” Albisu said. “Our staff and teachers have shown time and time again that they can bend and adapt to what is the absolute best for our students and their health and education. Everyone is being asked to think creatively, share kindness, and work hard.”

Jim Green, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, said state agencies are doing the best they can to answer questions during a challenging time. While he’s seen some frustration, he said most superintendents quickly moved on to revising plans – again.

“It’s frustrating, don’t get me wrong. I’m hearing a lot from superintendents and school districts,” Green said. “We knew this was going to be difficult and we’ve never faced anything like this before in the state.”

Eder Campuzano of The Oregonian/OregonLive and Emily Cureton of Oregon Public Broadcasting contributed to this story.

This story is the product of an ongoing collaboration between Salem Reporter, The Ontario Argus Observer, The Oregonian, Oregon Public Broadcasting and The Bend Bulletin to bring Oregonians a comprehensive look at public education and the fate of Oregon students amid the coronavirus pandemic.  

Rachel Alexander; [email protected], 503-575-1241.