Gov. Kate Brown is ordering teachers back into schools.
Faced with increasing ire from parents and Republican lawmakers, Brown this morning sent a letter to state officials telling them of her plans to issue executive orders mandating that all school districts offer in-person instruction to students by April 19.
Brown expects students in kindergarten to fifth grade to return to classrooms by March 29, and sixth through 12th grade students by April 19.
"Under this order, I'm so proud to say that by March 29 and April 19, kids all across Oregon will see the inside of their classrooms once again," Brown wrote to the directors of the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education. "Whether or not public schools should return kids to the classroom this spring is no longer up for discussion: the science and data is clear, schools can return to in-person instruction with a very low risk of COVID-19 transmission, particularly with a vaccinated workforce."
Brown's orders set up a confrontation with the state's teachers' unions, which have long been among her most loyal supporters. Brown offered teachers early access to COVID-19 vaccinations, but that only set up a standoff between teachers and districts about a return to classrooms, with many teachers, especially older ones, not convinced that it's safe.
But the state's teachers' unions—including the Oregon Education Association and the Portland Association of Teachers—received the news calmly this morning, at least in public. The unions issued a joint statement that welcomed the governor's timeline but made no promises.
"We urge our local school districts to continue to work in good faith with local educators to craft plans that will truly serve all of our students," the statement said, "and we are committed to expanding in-person instruction at our schools this spring."
Other politics are at play in the governor's effort to reopen schools nearly a year after she closed them amid a descending pandemic.
Republicans in the Oregon Senate and House issued a joint statement March 4 demanding a return to classroom instruction. President Joe Biden has pledged to reopen schools in the first 100 days of his administration. As a Democratic governor, Brown is being a good soldier by enforcing the president's promise.
In Oregon's largest school district, Portland Public Schools, the order arrives with several questions unanswered. First, will the governor's mandate have any effect on the collective bargaining process that would actually cut a deal for teachers to return? And will the order compel the school district to cough up the data on air quality inside school buildings? That's crucial health information it has so far declined to release.
Portland's school kids are among the 4% of American children living in a city with case counts low enough that the Biden administration recommends full-time in-person instruction, as The New York Times reported March 2.
Yet Portland Public Schools had only planned to return for limited in-person instruction next month, assuming case counts don't spike again.
In a survey of parents, 69% opted for in-person instruction for their elementary-age children. Brown's order does allow schools to accommodate parents who still wish to keep kids home.