Area school district officials are now planning how they will switch from a virtual learning model to in-person instruction after an announcement by Gov. Kate Brown last week. (The Enterprise/Kezia Setyawan).

VALE – Local educators were surprised when Gov. Kate Brown last week announced new mandates for in-person school instruction, adjusting a months-long policy that largely closed schools from Covid.

The governor, in her Dec. 23 announcement, directed state officials to ratify measures to reopen school by February and announced local school districts will decide when to start in-person learning. 

 “This was unexpected,” said Alisha McBride, Vale School District superintendent.

 McBride said she was “thrilled” by the news.

“It provides us the opportunity to consider local context when determining when we’d return to in-person instruction,” said McBride.

The governor said the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education would work with schools to return to in-person instruction by Feb. 15. The state also is to work with schools to furnish on-site, rapid testing for students who show symptoms of Covid or were exposed to the virus.

The new school plan is a significant milestone for local educators as almost all schools in Malheur County have been closed because of a high Covid positive rate and rising cases.

The path forward for local school districts varies.

McBride said she wasn’t sure if a special school board meeting will be held to consider the developments but “the board will obviously play a large role in making a decision.”

She said Vale is prepared to move closer to normal school operations.

“Our plans have been in place since this summer,” said McBride. “We were ready to reopen safely with measures in place. We will be revisiting those plans now.”

McBride said the elementary, middle and high schools are ready for students.

“But it isn’t just my decision. It is a collaborative decision with the board of directors and staff,” said McBride.

Nikki Albisu, superintendent of the Ontario School District, said she wants more specific information regarding the new metrics before outlining a plan for reopening.

“I don’t see us in January opening the doors to all kids,” said Albisu.

However, she said the district is already at work on a plan to expand in-person instruction in the new year.

Ontario would move gradually to return students to classes.

McBride said some questions linger, such as what on-site Covid testing for students will entail.

“I will be waiting for future guidance to determine what the process looks like and what school districts should put into consideration,” said McBride.

Mark Redmond, superintendent of the Malheur Education Service District, said he believes that at least some area school districts can be open by Feb. 15.

“I think it’s reasonable. I think it all depends on school district size. That’s just a fact. A smaller district can turn that around in much quicker time,” said Redmond.

Redmond said most local school districts will likely initially focus on opening school full-time for kindergarten through third-grade students.

“I think you are going to see school districts start with the youngest grades because they struggle the most with online learning,” said Redmond.

Redmond, like Albisu, said he didn’t expect schools to be open in early January.

“If I had to guess, Jan. 11 for some of the smaller districts, if they can work with the health department. A lot of ifs,” said Redmond.

Darren Johnson, Nyssa School District superintendent, said online instruction will continue into the first week of January.

“Stay tuned in the coming days and weeks for announcements regarding our plans for returning to in-person instruction,” said Johnson.

Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director, said her office will partner with local school districts to work out a blueprint for a return to in-person instruction.

She planned to meet with superintendents this week to consider their plans.

Poe said while the timing of the governor’s announcement was a surprise, the effort to open up schools has been an ongoing goal for local school officials and the health department for a long time.

“We have been working behind the scenes with many sectors on the local and state level to encourage this for months,” said Poe.

Poe said the governor’s decision is right.

“This is supported by science. We don’t see significant transmission in schools. The hardship this created has been disproportionally impacting people,” said Poe.

Poe said reopening schools is particularly important “in a county that has a 30 percent childhood poverty rate. We know schools are critical support for many needs of students and families,” said Poe.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

Previous coverage:

Malheur County schools could open in January as governor announces new rules

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

Child care options in Malheur County are slim for families as schools stay closed

Current Covid numbers show most Malheur County schools can't reopen in the fall

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]